New World Slave Systems
Psychological Theory Behind Plantation Life in the Old South
When we hear the word “plantation” the image that probably comes to everyone’s mind is the white, pillared front porch house on acres of sprawling green grass. As old historical writing states, we associate the plantation owner as a proud father, impeccably dressed with a delicate flower of a wife on his arm. His slow southern drawl emanates from his lips as he discusses the day’s proceedings with a muscular, intimidating overseer holding a large bullwhip. Now, as we observe that overseer, the part of the plantations that we politely squish from our minds as an unfortunate aspect of American history is nudged. We turn and look. Behind the large trees, behind the white house, around a bend, cabins come slowly into view. And suddenly, we are faced with the realization that those cabins house the heartbeat of the whole plantation. People step from the doors. Dark skin, deep eyes and hands calloused with hard work.
Knowing that the sheer number of enslaved Africans well outnumbered the emerging American people, and that in previous times huge uprisings from enslaved peoples drastically shifted the powers of the nations, why did this not happen in the U.S? The psychology behind slaves, specifically plantation slaves in the Old South has been studied in depth and the findings are both complex and saddening. Both social standing and a deep rooted sense of shame seems to have shackled these Africans to a slave system that was rooted much deeper than the physical enslavement of their bodies.
Brief History of Plantation Slavery in the Americas
How did plantation slavery arise in the America? Plantations originated in Latin America when people began to realize that putting more effort into one huge plantation was more cost efficient than having several small sugar farms. Sugar was the catalyst to the new slave run plantations. In their book African Slavery in Latin America and The Caribbean by Herbert Klein and Ben Vinson III, they state:
The transformation that sugar created in the West Indies was truly impressive… In 1645…more than 60 percent of the 18,300 white males were property owners and there were only 5,680 slaves. By 1670s sugar was dominant, the number of farms was down to 2600 units… and for the first time in the island’s history, blacks outnumbered the whites. By 1680 there were 37,000 slaves on the island (pg 53).
This expansion of the sugar trade played a significant role in the expansion of slavery in the New World and the economic balance of the Americas. Similar expansions were seen through the French Islands, although according to Klein and Vinson, the development was slower (pg 53). The development of the sugar trade reached a new high during the 17th century; however, North America was still too small to really add much to the number of imported slaves. According to Klein and Vinson, in 1720, Jamaica became the most slave populated colony (pg 55). The Jamaican sugar trade continued to grow and in the 1740’s “Jamaica replaced Barbados as the premier English sugar producer (pg 55).” During the next century, many different Latin American countries continued to develop their slave run sugar plantations. Saint Domingue, Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique all continued to grow and expand to become Caribbean plantation societies.
Slave life during this time was horrifying. The plantation and country owners were driven to compete with other large Caribbean islands to produce the most sugar, coffee and other valuable commodities to sell to their European “neighbors.” According to Klein and Vinson, during 1791, an industry revolt arose and “the result of all this violence was the elimination of the world’s largest sugar producer [-] Saint Domingue…(pg 86).” This void left the other major sugar producers scrambling for the number one position of power. This Haitian revolt proved pivotal in several ways. First, the slave laws were tightened considerably and the previously mentioned economic upheaval left an overall feeling of instability. Second, and more important to this essay, Klein and Vinson go on to point out that this made powerful incentives for the expansion of plantations and slave populations in America (87).
Laird W. Bergad, in his book The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba and the United States talks about the history of United States history and makes sure to point out that in the early history of the U.S, during the early part of 17th century, slavery was minimal at best (pg 56). However, this took a drastic dive and Bergard states “the transformations in economy, society, and culture were extensive by the early eighteenth century (pg 56).” Plantation slavery was on the rise.
2.) Plantation Life in South America - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/berryman5.JPG
3.) Cutting sugar cane - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/HW9-760.JPG
Plantation Life in the Old South
Although this is just a brief whirlwind overview of the history of slavery, we will jump ahead to an American plantation. Most of the plantations in the South were established to grow tobacco. In his book Society and Culture in the Slave South, Harris Williams points out that “the very dependence of the slave system on merchant capital created massive if temporary opportunities for the ruling class to amass great wealth (pg 33).” This great economic advantage, along with the easy access to African slaves who were already being brought up en masse to Latin America provided plantation owners with labor. In their book Slavery in the Development of the Americas, David Eltis, Frank Lewis and Kenneth Sokoloff state that “the production of cotton, tobacco, rice and sugar favour(s) the employment of slaves in the competition with peasant proprietors (pg 238).” Interestingly though, Williams goes on to state that slave systems, although initially lucrative, never hold up economically for long. He further speaks on how the Old South created a “slaveholding class capable of seizing regional political power…(pg 34).” The slave owners “confronted a powerful retrograde social class with the prospect of defeat and disaster (pg 35).” This is a psychologically powerful way to control a people group that could literally overthrow a whole nation in its infantile state. Orlando Patterson, in his book Slavery and Social Death, defines slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons (pg. 13).” Plantation owners in the Old South did just this with their masses of African slaves. By striving to strip them of their basic human dignity, this allowed the slave owners to hold onto their slaves and most times, prevent huge uprisings like the one that happened in Brazil. Psychologically, these people were treated as less than human; therefore, they did not have the ability to stand together as a nation and rebel against the cruelty of enslavement.
2.) A Cotton whipping machine - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0340.JPG
3.) Plantation slaves - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0341.JPG
Plantation Life: The Psychology of A Patriarchal Plantation
Although we sometimes think of all plantation owners as cruel, barbaric, money hungry dogs, many viewed their slaves as more than mere physical labor. Williams points out that many of these plantation owners tried to be “moral” in the treatment of their slaves. Curiously, many plantation owners treated their slaves as a large “family” as we have seen depicted in many historical works. This strong family system, however misguided, allowed the African slaves to assimilate into a sort of “family” role within the plantation. William interjects that “both blacks and whites had good reasons for a large psychological investment in family life as a source of psychological strength… membership in the plantation family at least partially mitigated the slave’s sense of degradation and offered him a positive identification with the master and mistress (pgs 40-41).” Because many slaves would integrate themselves into this family life, and view the master as the head – or father figure – they would automatically place themselves in the roll of a subordinate or “child.” Psychologically, this handicapped the slaves in a way. As stated earlier, their numbers would grow large enough in the U.S that a coming together could easily cause an overthrow of the whole slavery system; however, in order to survive, a simulation into the family life limited these slaves’ desire to actually stand up to their masters and revolt. There were those who did so, but as a whole, the plantation slaves lived a subordinate life within the patriarchal plantation life.
Plantation Life and The Psychology Of the Enslaved Men and Women
Williams states that “the experience of black slave women differed radically [from their white owners] for they belonged to households that were not governed by their own husbands, brothers and fathers (51).” In plantation families, the women’s lives were directly intertwined as the white women always had black handmaids to help them dress, fix their hair and attend to their needs. There were times that these women even slept in the same room together. The slave women would raise white children along with their own, and yet somehow, racism was still taught to those little children. Imagine the bond that would develop between a white child and his black nursemaid, only to be broken by prejudice and racism as soon as the child got old enough to understand that skin colors can mean different things. Although family oriented as a culture, these African women were often integrated into the household and did not have much time to spend caring for their own families. Their men were out in the fields working, their children came second to the plantation owner’s children.Men who lived in these plantations had maybe a more difficult time psychologically because masters viewed their male slaves as more “difficult” or “troublesome” than the females and were viewed more as “needing to be broken.” Male independence and leadership is a trait shared by most men, including the Africans who were imported to the Americas. According to Williams, from the time of import, or birth if they were American born slaves, any sign of “resentment or resistance were bound to meet prompt reprisal (130).” Because of the society, and the view that men were leaders and women were followers, the idea was that if the men were subdued, the women would naturally follow suite. Williams goes on to state that “pressure to conform to bondage, to recite the script as given can lead to self-deprecation or even self-hatred (131).” “Slave personality,” he believes, is a form of thinking that removes the idea of individuality and puts the slave under his master as a father to child viewpoint. Some slaves responded to this way of thnking by compliance, some by merely accepting fate and taking life as it comes and the third is what Williams called “shamelessness.” He believes that these three categories melded and shifted within each person. They were not set and stone and would perhaps present themselves at different times within the lives of each individual. Slave men had a dilemma – how would they “maintain dignity in the face of shamelessness by masters…(134)?” Some responded by rebelling, running away or killing, but the majority struggled more internally. A sense of powerlessness, emasculation and shame characterized many African slave men.
2.) Female slave working with children - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0253.JPG
3.) Male and female slave, common clothing - http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0280.JPG
Psychological enslavement may have been just as impactful for Africans on plantations in the old south as the actual physical enslavement. As we have seen historically, slave driven overthrows have happened. They happened in Brazil and a whole sugar hub came crashing down, shifting the whole economic standing of the nations. However, while this could have happened through the sheer number of slaves in the Deep South and the rest of southern U.S, the slaves were entrenched in such a hole of self immobilization, this never occurred.
Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.
Eltis, David, Frank Lewis, and Kenneth Sokoloff. "Slavery in the Development of the Americas." (eBook, 2004) [WorldCat.org]. Cambridge University Press, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Harris, J. William. Society and Culture in the Slave South. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Klein, Herbert, and Ben Vinson, III. African Slavery in Latin America and The Caribbean. N.p.: Oxford UP, n.d. Print.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.