What happened on a plantation?
RECAP – some of these are quite tough, the answers are below if you are not sure of any!
Answers (click to reveal)
What happened on a plantation?
As we have already seen in previous lessons, the slave trade was incredibly brutal. Between the 1500s and 1800s around 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean. The journey would take months and the slaves would be cramped on board tightly packed slave ships. Around 20% of slaves died on the journey. When slaves died on the ship they were thrown overboard. Upon reaching the Americas (North America, South America or the Caribbean) slaves would be sold for the highest price, usually at an auction.
Many slave traders and many European countries (including Britain) grew extremely rich from this trade, but once the slave was sold at auction, their life as a slave was only just beginning.
Most slaves would end up working on a plantation in a variety of different jobs.
Plantation – the name for a huge farm where many slaves worked. They farm ‘cash crops’. These are things that are grown with the specific purpose of selling for money (rather than eating to stay alive). Eg. cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, tea.
The type of work a slave would do would depend on a range of different factors including their gender and their age. Some slaves worked within a slave owner’s house as cooks or cleaners. The majority, however worked outside in the fields growing and picking crops like cotton. They could work 15 or 16 hours a day, had a very poor diet and often faced physical punishments. The average life expectancy of a slave was only 26 years old.
When slaves arrived at a plantation they were usually branded with a branding tool. This would burn the slave owners initials onto the slave so that everyone knew who he was the property of.
TASK 1: Read through the 2 sources below and answer the questions that follow
Source 1: From a 1784 book by James Ramsey, a British doctor working on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. He was shocked by the way that slaves were treated
“The ordinary punishment of slaves are whipping, beating with a stick – sometimes to the breaking of bones – chains, an iron ring around the ankle, or being placed in a dungeon. There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs (body parts such as arms or legs), amputation (removing a body part), and taking out eyes”
Source 2: From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) by Frederick Douglass
“The time came when I must go to work on the plantation. I was less than seven years old. On the plantation of Colonel Lloyd I was left to the tender mercies of Aunt Katy, a slave woman who, ill-tempered and cruel, was often guilty of starving me and the other children. One day I had offended Aunt Katy and she adopted her usual mode of publishing me; namely, making me go all day without food. Sundown came, but no bread. I was too hungry to sleep, when who but my own dear mother should come in. She read Aunt Katy a lecture which was never forgotten. That night I learned as I had never learned before, that I was not only a child, but somebody’s child. My mother had walked twelve miles to see me, and had the same distance to travel over before the morning sunrise. I do not remember seeing her again.”
TASK 1: Questions to answer based upon the information you had read:
1. What were plantations like?
2. Why do you think slaves were given a new name by their slave owners?
3. In source 2, what happened to Douglass’ mother?
TASK 2: Look at the painting above. It shows a sugar plantation in the West Indies in the 19th century. The conditions in this painting don’t look too bad. How could you explain this?
There are lots of films and documentaries about the slave trade (many are certificate 15 because of the nature of the topic). They include 12 Years a Slave, Roots (there is an older and a newer tv mini series), Birth of a Nation, Amistad, Harriet, Belle, Amazing Grace and many more.
Well done you have completed today’s lesson!
Want to think like a historian?
What do you think are the challenges of studying the slave trade for historians? Think in particular about why it might be quite hard to study life on the plantations.
Just some of the things to consider:
– literacy levels
– racism then and now
– lost records of slaves as they were given new names and moved from place to place
– the different treatment of slaves on different plantations
A lot of the films listed above are about abolition of slavery (ending) rather than about plantation and slave life itself. Why might this be the case?