Slavery: Plantation Life Before Emancipation

The myth of the “valuable, well-treated slave” is one that began back when slavery was a going concern, in response to abolitionist allegations that chattel slavery was a cruel and inhumane institution, and you’ll still find it going strong today. The one thing the late 19th century had that we don’t today is narratives by actual slave owners, attempting to shore up this myth even after slavery was over.

This particular tome was written by one Robert Q. Mallard, and published in 1892. Mr. Mallard was born in 1830, and apparently lived on a large plantation where you will be unsurprised to learn his family was the very picture of benevolence and kindliness and compassion to the enslaved people who lived and worked on it.

And there you are, reading along, thinking to yourself “This guy was clearly seriously delusional,” and then all of a sudden the whole thing just out of left field slaps you upside the head with the brutal reality of the plantation and the chattel slavery system. For example, Mallard spends 38 pages talking about the charming and pleasant life the enslaved people lead, being given two good suits of clothing every year, plenty of food, and heck, they weren’t even required to work when it was raining! They spent their days singing and dancing and playing games and they all just loved being on the plantation. Yes sir, they sure did. It’s a perfect slave-owning fantasy of people who loved their lot in life, working for caring and compassionate masters who were just condescending bastards.

And then you get to page 38, and see “CHAPTER VI. THE NEGRO – HOW HE WAS GOVERNED” and you think “In this crazy man’s world, clearly the plantation was a democracy, right?” but suddenly Mallard starts…slipping. It’s the only word I can apply to it, seriously, because he goes from the patronizing portrayal of overjoyed African-Americans singing and dancing to, well… look, it just all goes downhill, OK? I’ll let him tell it. Page 40 and 41:

Next to him stood the negro driver. Dr. C. C. Jones studiously avoided the use of this term, calling that official on his plantations the “foreman;” but in reality the term in Southern ears had no more suggestiveness of cruelty to men than the phrase “carriage-driver” has of cruelty to animals; and there was no more abuse of power ordinarily in the one case than in the other. The driver commonly carried what was known as a “cotton planter” – a short whip with heavy handle and tapering thong, plaited in one piece. It was usually worn around his shoulder, and was more a symbol of authority than an instrument of service; a reminder of the penalty of neglect than an implement of suffering.

Right. That whip. It wasn’t “an implement of suffering,” it was “a symbol of authority” and “a reminder of the penalty of neglect.” Well, shit, I’m guessing the penalty wasn’t tickling people with that there whip. He continues:

Now, in regard to the actual exercise of this power and authority by planter, overseer and driver, we hesitate not to affirm that it was, in the main, as humanely administered as the imperfection of human nature permitted. As for the lash, it was used rarely upon the bare back, or excessively; and it should be remembered that it is only recently that flogging with the cat-o’-nine tails has been abolished in the navy.

Oh well that’s all right, then. As long as they weren’t lashing people excessively on bare skin. And we all know that if the Navy did it, it must be just fine and humane. Seriously. This man was beating (or ordering the beating) of actual human beings with an actual whip because they weren’t picking enough goddamned cotton or rice or whatever he was growing, and it was somehow all right because he only did it through their clothes? Look, blah blah historical perspective cultural relativism blah blah what the hell were these people smoking? And do we still grow it down here?

Pages 44 and 45 are familiar to anyone who’s hung around slavery apologists, and so less jarring, featuring both the “slave owners were kindhearted!” and of course the “valuable, well-treated slave” myths:

Humanity to slaves was secured by more than one influence. First, the Southern planter was as kindhearted and naturally philanthropic as any class of men found anywhere; then with us he was usually a college-bred man and of liberal culture. Not a few of them were as noble Christian gentlemen as were ever produced by any civilization; then there was a powerful public sentiment, which ostracized a cruel master. In addition to this, self-interest exercised a powerful influence in restraining from cruel treatment.

Injury to the slave was pecuniary loss. A curious illustration of the potency of this principle came under my observation in our civil war. Planters, who cheerfully surrendered their sons to the army, protested against the use of their slaves in the trenches! Then, above all, there was a strong attachment between the master and the servant, the natural result of closest association from childhood, which made cruelty foreign to the very nature of the owner.

Delusional. When you read the slave narratives, what will strike you is how much enslaved people didn’t like the kind of person who a) owned slaves while b) asserting his kindness as c) he beat the shit out of people with a whip. Ahem. Carrying on, we get to “CHAPTER VIII. “DADDY JACK” – A CURIOUS CHARACTER.” Yes, I did skip CHAPTER VII. MARRIAGE AND FAMILY RELATIONS. That’s because Mallard was off in a dream world again, where enslaved people got to have their wedding in the big house oh, unless it was a punishment for “misbehavior.” Yeah, you heard me, people were forced to get married as a punishment. I am not making this up. Carrying on. CHAPTER VIII.

The chapter begins, “Daddy Jack was a queer negro.” I’m quite certain that Mallard isn’t using that phrase in the modern sense, but it does get a little intriguing when you hear that “Daddy Jack” — OK, look, I can’t keep using that mode of address and I’m dropping the Daddy here on out — was a lifelong bachelor, one of two Mallard ever knew among the enslaved people on his plantation. Well, Jack was married once, briefly, but divorced shortly after, so.

Anyhow. This is also where Mallard starts getting even more wildly contradictory. Seriously. Page 32:

As to their clothing, two good strong suits were given every year – in the summer, white Osnaburgs; in the winter, a kind of jeans, partly cotton and mostly wool, and stout brogans. The clothes were often cut and made up “in the big house” by negro seamstresses. The house-women were clad in a very neat fabric called “linsey woolsey,” and with the house-boys fell heirs to the half-worn garments of the young masters and mistresses. A good warm blanket was given each worker every alternate year; so that a little care accumulated an abundance of warm bed covering.

Mark that first line: “two good strong suits were given every year”. And then on pages 56 & 57:

My father had a great fondness for [Jack], and gave him two suits of clothing where the rest received one; and a blanket every year, instead, as was common, every alternate year. . .

Yep. Ahem. Moving on to page 58, we then see:

My father gave him, as he did the rest of the people, a piece of good land to cultivate in rice, of which he was as fond as any Chinaman, and provided the seed; well, he had to order the driver to flog him to make him turn up the soil; and then he defeated the master’s kind design by beating out the rice and planting his plot with the chaff.

Well, shit. Here’s this man that Mallard Senior is very fond of, and a driver whose whip is only for show, and when Jack doesn’t demonstrate proper gratitude by growing his own damn rice so the Mallards don’t have to feed his ass, Mallard Senior orders the driver to flog him. Mallard continues, “I never knew him to be sick for a day, and he was never behind-hand in his tasks, and never punished for idleness where his master’s work was concerned.” Yeah, I bet not. If you get a flogging for not working your own damn garden well enough, I don’t want to think about what you got for not doing the master’s work well enough.

Just reading this crap makes me feel dirty. Like, go shower and scrub myself with steel wool dirty, for even having white ancestors in the south. I just can’t fathom the mindset that sees nothing wrong at all with marrying two people to each other as a punishment, or whipping someone out of, what, love? Because he had “defeated the master’s kind design”? What was even going on here?

So there’s your “valuable, well-treated slave” as described by someone who bought into the myth when it was a going political concern. One or two suits of clothing a year, a new blanket every other year, and oh, yeah, flogged but only on top of their clothes, and always “humanely.” As if there’s a humane way to flog another human being. Don’t tell me about valuable, well-treated slaves until you’ve read these narratives and gotten dirty with me.

Plantation Life Before Emancipation, R. Q. Mallard


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