Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Introduction

Slavery is an emotive issue which is worth studying. The period under which this slavery was practiced formed a sad epoch in the life of many. Slavery has, thus evoked varied feelings and expressions that reflected what many went through. This is because slavery had a great impact on the people and the nation of America as a whole. This paper will look at the various aspects of slavery.

Slavery in the South

It is recorded that slavery started at around 1619. By this time the colonists had large farms of tobacco operational. Tobacco plants were being planted around that year. We are told that around five years later, the first batch of slaves was brought in aboard a ship. These were about 20 Africans who were designated to work as servants in the tobacco firms. After these, the number of slaves brought in began to soar[1]. At one time in the year 1617, it is said, about 3000 African slaves were in Virginia.

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Due to the exponential rise in the number of slaves, many legislators began to craft legislation that sought to restrict the rights of the slaves. The slaves were taken as property which could be retained or disposed off at their masters’ will. This meant that owners could now sell the slaves at their own volition. By 1700s there were, thus, a huge number of slave-owners engaged in buying and selling of slaves.

Records show that slave trade in the south was so perilous; slaves were treated cruelly. They were highly discriminated against.

As farming shifted from tobacco to cotton farming the demand for slaves continued. Some of the problems these slaves faced included no pay despite having worked for long hours, poor diet, etc. They also did not get proper housing; they lived in shanties and other forms of dehumanizing settlements, yet the economy of the region depended heavily on them.

The labor was hard as every one of the slaves was assigned duties. For instance, women did household chores such as cooking, clearing the houses of their masters. Men got trained for menial jobs such as carpentry and even masonry as a larger percentage of them were farm laborers[2].

From the life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs introduces her story by giving a brief background of what the situation was. She says that having been born a slave girl, she never knew of the impact of slavery until she was past six years of age. Her father had been trained as a carpenter. He was so skillful that he worked as “the head workman”.

From the introduction that Jacobs provides we learn of what went through the mind of most slaves. For instance she reveals her father’s wishes. She says that her father always longed for the period when he would be free to do whatever he wished. What is ironical is that after working, instead of being paid by his mistress, he was instead the one who paid the mistress two hundred dollars per year. He also did not have a right to his own children. He tried fruitlessly to purchase his own children.

Slave Trade and Colonial Society

To establish slavery, the colonial society served as a platform through which the trade could prosper. For instance the colonies to a large extent were autonomous. A good illustration can be drawn from the colonies of Virginia and Maryland[3]. For instance in Maryland, the house of delegates, though part of the British imperial system, was autonomous.

So was the Virginia House of Burgesses. So when it came to legislation. these autonomous colonies could pass whatever they deemed crucial to their own interests. Slaves were also moved from West Indies. There was, however, fierce competition for slaves from the Caribbean and Brazilian farmers. They needed more slaves. To counter this, planters from North America encouraged slaves to have families. Thus, they encouraged buying of slave families.

Slave numbers differed greatly in the colonies. Blacks were in some areas outnumbering the whites. By this, the preservation of their culture was enhanced[4]. The few slaves who stayed in the North stayed in their masters’ homes. For example around 1746 slaves formed about 20% of the New York’s population. Here, they equally worked as domestic servants, some worked on ships, while others worked as apprentices.

However, instances of resistance did not miss. Though they used passive resistance by things such as pretending to be sick, breaking work implements, etc, the Stonno Rebellion that took place in South Carolina was quite a rebellion to behold. It is recorded that approximately one hundred slaves clashed with and killed twenty whites. These slaves were also killed in turn. However, this rebellion did not end there; many rebellions were sparked in many other places in the subsequent years.

Agriculture

Since most colonists ventured in Agriculture, though tobacco had remained the main crop that most farmers preferred, the need for other crops and unstable prices many left for other activities such as fish, lumbering. In essence, many farmers diversified their farming[5]. Land was quite limited in the North but the South enjoyed abundant farming fields. These even attracted Germans and the Scotts. The interior provided them with enough land. They, therefore, ventured into farming that could also support them.

Industrialization also made the entrenchment of slavery possible. For instance in the 1700s the cotton gin was invented. This was a machine that speeded up the cleaning of cotton. With the introduction of this machine, most farmers started making a lot on money. With such growth in returns, there was need for more slaves as more land was bought for planting more cotton. It was around 1820s that cotton production became a leading export earner for the US.

Slave Life

Slave life had a great impact on the family. The role of the family was what southerners highly appreciated and sought to protect. So population including the white, the slaves and even the free cherished the institution of family. Many felt that family was crucial for the emotional and physical growth, which could in the end bring a sense of comfort to the people. So family life was an ideal sought by all these groups that lived in the South[6].

Jacobs (8) in Life of a Slave Girl gives a vivid experience of how she stayed with the family members including her grandmother. This maternal grandmother happened to be the daughter of one of the planters in South Carolina. She gives the harrowing account through which the grandmother went through. For instance she vividly narrates how at one time she was set free only to be recaptured and sold to other purchasers. But the grandmother was also intelligent and dutiful.

She could engage in cake cooking, cracker making and even at some time she would serve as a nurse. But though she was allowed to produce and keep some of the profit that emanated from what she sold, her major intension was to buy her children. Yet also, with all these money, she did not succeed to buy all her children. Her favorite child was sold out but this did not deter her from soldiering on.

Many slaves in Virginia struggled to have their families intact. Though the privileges sought remained elusive for many slaves. The slaves were under constant pressure that threatened their very family fabric they yearned to uphold. For example, Jacobs in her story, tells of how her maternal grandmother could struggle with saving a very small fraction to buy off her children.

What is more, she tells of how her grandmother’s hard savings were taken by the wife of the slave owner with a promise to return. This never happened as no slave had rights. In fact where there was a pact of any sort with the slave owner, it was never honored[7]. The slave ended up the loser. This situation was quite disheartening to the slaves as they did not have control over anything: their family, their hard earned cash, their destination etc. All that prevailed was being subjected to exploitation and degrading lifestyle.

The slave masters interfered in the family lives of the slaves that even most of these masters chose partners for their slaves. Slaves were not allowed to freely choose their marriage partners.

Dr Flint in the Life of a Slave girl epitomizes the poor view towards slaves. Jacobs (35) tells of how she fell in love with a colored carpenter. Under Dr Flint such a union was not going to succeed. By this, one sees how the masters maintained a strong stranglehold on the slaves. Slaves had no choice to marry the love of their hearts.

Even the mistresses were equally vicious. For example, we are told of how the mistress had once abused a young girl who had told her that a colored man wanted to marry her. She had thus retorted, “I will have you peeled and pickled, my lady, if I hear you mention that subject again”. The relationship did not continue. Brent herself was not allowed to get married to a free slave (36).

It was common place for the slave masters to make choices for their slaves. They also controlled the relationships. For instance, they could separate the couples they had previously united at will. To further debase the slaves, some slave owners imposed extra-marital partners on the slaves.

The children that the slaves had could be sold at will by the masters. They virtually had control over everything that had to do with the slaves. This, they did, to gain economically. So the slaves did not know their next destination; they were never sure of tomorrow. What they went through was a whole life of anxiety and trauma. This constant torture was what many slaves had to live through.

History has it that the biggest blow happened in Virginia when a lucrative slave trade meant that slaves being sold from Virginia to other parts in the South. This led to husband being separated from wife, child from mother and so on. The kinship networks that had developed over years were completely shattered. Many slaves felt like they were not human beings.

This forced movement shattered that the kinship unity that had taken years to build. It is believed that between 1850 and 1860 over sixty eight thousand slaves had been moved from Virginia to other parts meant that many children became like orphans. The family fabric broke.

Accounts are also given of how the slaves who remained behind got mistreated[8] . They could be lashed with whips. Some children bore scars out of being exposed to dangerous household chores without any form of adult supervision as their parents had been sold out elsewhere.

It should also be noted during the era of slave trade, child rearing was done by members of the community such that in case parents were out for work, other members of the extended family would step in. But, now this could not work since most kinship ties had been shattered through the forced movement of the slaves. Thus, many children became parentless while others became orphans[9].

It is only after some of the experiences emanating from the effects of forced immigration that set out to encourage slave mothers to have complete control of their children’s upbringing. The fathers were denied this right. So mothers physically and emotionally played a major role in the lives of their children unlike the fathers. Actually, the slave mothers were considered the head of their slave families, thus, being the primary care-giver to their children. The slave fathers’ role in the upbringing of their children was greatly diminished.

There were also notable sexual advances made by the master to their slaves. The masters could for instant target married slaves. These sexual advances and interference caused a lot of pain and discord among the slaves. This is especially so keeping in mind the powerlessness with which the slave males felt. However in certain instance the slave males could react and this drew retaliatory responses. So the revolters would be lashed, forced to separate or some even got murdered for their resistance to these advances.

Since most slaves could not hit back at their masters, they in turn heaped all the frustration to their spouses. Sometimes when the wives told their husbands what they had gone through, the husbands were powerless to hit back at the masters’ advances. So, many female slaves underwent constant sexual abuse from their masters with no place to go for recourse.

Many would therefore resort to tactics of even lying to their spouses to avoid the suspicions. But the result would be wives giving birth to children of mixed color. Out of such frustration some slave couples resorted to alcoholism, violence and even adulterous escapades. Others lost faith in the institution of marriage completely.

Slave Law

The laws governing slavery were several and they determined the future of slavery. For instance one Virginian law stated that Africans were to be servants for life. One ridiculous statute even went further to bequeath the role of family headship to the mother.

It thus demanded that if an Englishman had a child with a black slave, then the child would only be considered free depending on the status of the mother. One sees that the traditional role of the father as the head of the family was reversed here. This went against the tradition of most slaves.

What is even more frustrating was that most colonial legislatures eventually adopted this. Eventually, the children that were born out of these slave mothers would be in turn be the property of the slave owners. To save the amount they could incur in buying slaves some slaves could prefer impregnating the slaves.

The laws actually advanced the institutionalization of slavery. This was achieved through preferment of harsh penalty; families of slaves were taken up by the families of their masters. The roles of the family heads were taken by the master. However, the laws restricted between whites and black, mulatto and even Indian descent. If such a situation would occur then the punishment was banishment from Virginia forever.

Every slave state had own legislation developed since 1660s. There were courts established to deal with issues to do with slavery. Thus each state had its unique laws governing the issue of slavery. Some of the laws for instance demanded that the slaves had no right to ownership of anything including own children.

They were not allowed to own property or enter into a contract. Thus any contract made that included a slave, was deemed null and void. Thus, since marriage is usually considered a contract between two consenting parties, the masters invoked this statute even dismantle the unions that existed between the slaves[10] .

Thus, husbands would be separated from wife at the master’s will. So, parents’ only love could not be free to marry her because she was a slave. According to the law if the marriage could have been successful then it meant that their children would be considered slaves as the law prescribed that the children always assume the status of the mother (who was a slave) and not the father (in this case a free person)[11]

Slaves who faced charges got tried in non-jury courts. One can see that the intention here was to deny them a fair hearing. In most cases, the sentences were handed with a view to serve as an example to any slaves who could venture in crime the others had ventured in. Thus, the punishments were dire.

Many would be imprisoned for life while other would even be hung. The long life sentence would be accompanied by lashes and hard labor. Some slaves were even burned at the stake in the full glare of the public. Others were castrated on top of whips.

By a1681 law, it was legislated that any children that were born of white servant women were to be considered free. Otherwise the law was clear that the status of slaves was to be one that never changed[12]. Slaves were to be slaves for life. In Maryland, marriage between white women and black men were highly prohibited. To discourage this, the law made it clear that any white lady who got married to a black slave became slave herself.

Fighting Back

Many slaves bore this frustration with great anger and frustration. They plotted resistance. Many slaves like Denmark Vesey plotted the capture of Charleston but one of the slaves revealed the plot and this ended in 36 of the slaves being captured and sentenced to death. Another one, Nat Turner organized a revolt. This revolt led to the death of many white masters. Though many fought back the laws then made it very difficult for them to achieve their goals[13].

Some slaves, faced with such frustration ended up taking away their own lives. Jacobs tells of a lady who threw herself into the rivers after she was being pursued to be stripped and whipped for a minor mistake and therefore she threw herself into the river[14].

Conclusion

The American slavery was quite an emotive issue. Most slaves were black, save for a few exceptions. Thus the degrading spectacle that many underwent greatly affected them psychologically. Even after being declared free, many former slaves still exhibited a certain taint of inferiority. They lacked the confidence after harrowing acts of degradation they had witnessed.

However, some slave owners educated some slaves but with the intention of having them serve them better. They were therefore exposed to their culture, religion and even discipline to make them submissive. The slaves were made to believe that their way of life was inferior. But this did not last long as witnessed from the revolts that ensued. Actually, what Jacobs has shown in her autobiography is worth pontificating about.

Bibliography

Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Gudmestad, Robert H. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Retrieve from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11030

Rawley, James A., & Stephen D. Behrendt. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989,p,87
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Retrieve from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11030
Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 68
H Gudmestad Robert. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003,p 89
A Rawley James & Behrendt Stephen D. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005,p 44
Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 77
H Gudmestad Robert. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003,p,98
Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989,p.79
Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 98
H Gudmestad Robert. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003,p, 102
H Gudmestad Robert. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003,p, 39
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Retrieve from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/11030
Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989,p,98
Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989,p,123

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