Slavery: The Peculiar Institution Essay, Research Paper
The Peculiar Institution
When the Africans came to America, a new culture began to develop;
African-American culture, the culture of the slave. All aspects of life for these imported
people began to change in many ways. In this essay we will follow the migration of a
slave to an American home, and their home, family, and work lives.
Slavery was well known in many areas of Africa, including eastern Nigeria, the
Gold Coast, and western Angola during the 1600?s, where the people were forced to
cultivate land. From these and other areas, about ten million African slaves were
kidnapped, usually from peaceful tribes because members of warrior tribes defended
themselves to the death, and forced to march to the Atlantic Coast, which, at times, was
over one hundred miles. Those who were too weak to keep up were murdered (?The
March to the Coast,? p. 1). Once to the coast, the slaves were kept in dungeon-like pits
until they could be packed on the slave ships. Sometimes they had to spend months
chained up in these confinements (?The Slave Pits/Dungeons?, p. 1).
The voyage from Africa to the Americas across the Middle Passage was a
nightmare that had to be endured for months at a time. The intense pressure to obtain the
greatest profit out of the trade, no matter what cost to the slave, forced traders to allow
inhumane conditions. Slaves were wedged on the lower decks of ships like logs and were
chained together. There was almost no room to sit, stand, or lie down. the space given to
an adult male, five and a half feet wide by sixteen inches in width, was no larger than a
grave. The slaves often slept on their sides, their naked bodies fitting together in a
spoon-like fashion. They were allowed on the deck for a few minutes a day for fresh air
and exercise, which was usually just jumping at their masters instruction. The holds were
dark, filthy, slimy, and they stank of human waste. The food quickly spoiled and the water
became stagnant. Slaves who felt sick were simply tossed overboard to prevent an
Once on American soil, slaves were herded to a stockade to be sold. There they
thoroughly examined by eager merchants and purchased. During these slave auctions,
families were torn apart, mothers separated from children, husbands from wives. The
auctions were so unpleasant that white women were rarely found in the area. The ?black
horses?, as they were often called, were then taken to their new homes (John W.
Blassingame, p 15). Upon arrival, the slaves had to sign a contract no less than six pages
long. The rules and expectations were clearly stated in these documents. If the slave
refused to sign, they severely beaten. Most of the slaves could not read, but quickly
signed to prevent flogging.
Where the slaves were sent, their looks, sex, and the season determined what types
of work they would do. Men and women that were sent to a plantation would probably
work as field hands, sowing, maintaining, and harvesting sugarcane, corn, cotton, tobacco,
or other crops. Field hands would rise before sunrise, prepare their morning meal, feed
the livestock, and then rush to the fields by the time the sun came up. At sunset they
would retire from the fields to their homes, or to other chores (John W. Blassingame, p.
A few slaves sent to a plantation, mostly children, the elderly, and the attractive,
would work as domestic servants (?Slavery in the U.S.?, p.1). These slaves were better
dressed, fed, and often favored, but were no happier with their position than field workers.
Domestic servants ran errands, worked as gardeners, cooked and served meals, cared for
livestock, cared for the masters children, wove, spun wool, did the marketing, cleaned the
house, churned the milk, and did many other tasks. These slaves had no regular hours,
and had the discomfort of constantly being under the watchful eyes of the owner (John W.
On smaller farms, farther north, slaves often had a more personal relationship with
their master. They often worked aside their master. Domestic slaves were treated almost
How the slaves were treated depended on the master. If he saw blacks as equal,
then he might befriend his slaves, or possibly free them. He may have just needed help on
the farm and would have hired out if it had been more economical. A cruel master may
see them as cattle that must be whipped into shape. For the most part, the basic needs of
the slaves were met, no matter the feelings of the master. They had shelter, food, and
clothing even if it was just a minimal amount or of poor quality (John W. Blassingame, p.
Slaves were punished for things like disobedience, attempted runaway,
non-submission, dissatisfaction, learning to read or write, stealing, drunkenness, fighting,
working too slowly, or attempting to prevent the sale of family members, along with many
other reasons. Usually punishment was a flogging administered by an overseer.
Non-violent means were administered whenever possible so as not to damage valuable
property. These punishments included solitary confinement, humiliation, and extra work.
A slaveholder, generally speaking had no desire to endanger a slaves life with punishment.
However, occasionally passion took over a master causing him to kick, slap, or cuff a
domestic servant and punish a slave so severely that it took weeks for him to recover.
Any white man was allowed to police slaves, and punishments were often more severe
when the one who punished was not the owner (John W. Blassingame, p162).
Some of the more rebellious slaves received torturous punishments. Iron weights
with bells were put on their necks to slow them down and to announce their whereabouts.
Some slaves were covered with tar and set on fire. Others had toes, fingers, nails, and
other body parts beaten off. Many were lashed until blood flowed profusely from their
backs. Some slaves were victims of ferocious dog attacks and others were hung by their
thumbs and beaten (John W. Blassingame, p. 162-164).
Despite the control that the master exerted over his slaves, they still had a family
life. In the South, slaves were usually allowed a monogamous family life. Although slave
families did not legally exist, they were the most important survival mechanisms for the
slaves. The family provided love, companionship, sexual gratification, and sympathetic
understanding. It also taught cooperation, ways to avoid punishment, and increased
self-esteem, despite how frequently it was split apart. It also let a slave feel power over
something. Slave holders usually encouraged families to develop because a ?married?
slave was less likely to be rebellious or try to run away because of the threat of losing their
families (John W. Blassingame, p. 78,80).
The rearing of children was one of the most important parts of the slave family.
Parents could teach their children to be happy with their lives, help them understand their
situation, teach values different from those that the owners tried to instill, and help them
maintain self-esteem (John W. Blassingame, p. 79). However, parents had little or no
authority over their children except for the small amount of time spent alone in the cabin.
During the day, young children were taken care of by the elderly and rarely saw their
Slaves lived in small one-room log cabins, with dirt floors that were often shoddily
built. The cabins contained a fireplace and any furniture the slaves made, usually a few
beds, a bench, table, and utensils. The beds were corn shucks or straw laid on a board.
Slaves might have one blanket for every three slaves, or none at all, as it was in some
plantations. Usually two or more families lived in each cabin, or about nine people.
Allowances of food were given weekly. Cornmeal and salt pork were generally
given, and that was supplemented with vegetables from a slaves own garden and meat that
he may have trapped or hunted. Only enough food to survive was given to the slaves.
The slaves basically ate the same foods as his master, although it was of poorer quality.
For example, while a slave would have choice cuts of a swine, a slave would be given the
feet or snout.
Clothing was made of tow-cloth, cotton, or wool. A man would have one pair of
trousers, two cotton shirts, a pair of woolen trousers, one woolen jacket, a hat, and a
course pair of shoes. A woman would have a few plain gowns. Children wore nothing
but a simple long shirt similar to a plain gown.
Slaves were usually given Sundays and holidays off. During this and other leisure
times, slaves participated in many activities including fishing, hunting, wrestling, races and
other contests, singing, dancing, playing music, marbles, gambling, conversing, and most
often story-telling. Story-telling and music were central parts of slave life. African-
American tales often had strong morals and were based on animals. Many tales, such as in
the Brer Rabbit tales, involved a weak animal defeating a larger one. Dances were often
held on the plantation that couples came to (John W. Blassingame).
Slave religion was a mixture of African and Christian religions. Slaves often sang
and shouted during their meetings and altogether had much more emotional connection
with their sermons. They often copied the sermons of their masters and occasionaly had
access to a bible. During their meetings, slaves would release their despair and express
their desire for freedom. Certain rituals remained African, such as burials.
Dooley, Don, ed. Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cookbook. Meredith Corp, 1975.
Walter, Eugene. American Cooking: Southern Style. Time Inc., 1971
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 1998 ed. ?Slavery in the United States.?