African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in the Low Country—Cultural Patterns

Health Impacts of Intensive Plantation Labor

During the 18th century, there were essentially four kinds of threats to the health of enslaved people in Low Country. The Middle Passage experience brought with it conditions associated with long confinement, poor nutrition, contagious dysentery and small pox. After arrival in Low Country, the climate combined with prolonged hours of intensive labor, with or without sufficient food, affected enslaved people’s health. Babies and children were more likely to have poor nutrition and be subject to parasites like hookworms. Hard work compromised the fertility of enslaved women or increased the likelihood of childbirth complications. Work accidents, the effects of severe punishment or measures taken to prevent running away such as ankle or neck irons were another health threat. Enslaved people’s folk beliefs and folk practices constituted another threat to health associated with “witchcraft, conjuration, and the agency of evil spirits in the affairs of humans” as Charles Ball, an enslaved man from Maryland sold into slavery in South Carolina in the late 18th century, observed (Ball 1837:165). Read more about the impact of intensive labor on health. Ball also describes the health care provided for slaves.

The high mortality rate among enslaved people working in rice cultivation contributed to the continuing importation of Africans into Low Country. By 1737, a Swiss newcomer commented: “Carolina looks more like a negro country than a country settled by white people (Wood 1974:132). From the perspective of African heritage preservation, continued importation of West Africans into South Carolina for over 100 years contributed to reinforcement of West African cultural traditions, customs, language and beliefs systems among them and the production of Gullah-Geechee culture.

The impact of rice cultivation on the organization of labor and its outcomes was an equally, if not more important positive development. Morgan argues that the African immigrants’ familiarity with rice cultivation and the crop requirements of producing rice may have been factors accounting for the evolution of the task system of labor in contrast to gang systems practiced on tobacco and sugar plantations. The “task system” in turn created a sharp distinction between the ‘master’s time’ and the “slave’s time.” For a bondsman to “own time” in which he or she could do what they wished was to have long-term significance on other aspects of the lives of enslaved Africans (Morgan 1982).

African Tasks, Time, Economy, and Autonomy

As early as the first decade of the 18th century the clergy of South Carolina complained that slaves were planting “ for themselves as much as will cloath and subsist them and their fam[ilies] (Morgan 1982:566).” In the 17th century white slaveholders dependence on Africans to tame the wilderness and participate in colonial defense against Indians, Spanish and French sowed the seeds of autonomy among African peoples that flourished in the 18th century along with their population numbers and the evolution of rice as the basis of the Carolina economy. The early and continued dependence of South Carolinians on enslaved people’s agricultural technological knowledge reinforced to African autonomy in setting the pace of their work, defining standards of workmanship, and division of labor among themselves. The continued need of slave owners for bondsmen to raise subsistence provisions legitimated African autonomy in working for themselves. By law, enslaved people had Sunday off. Crops raised on Sundays, game and fish acquired by enslaved people not only supplemented their diet but also allowed people to produce a small surplus they bartered and sold with others to acquire goods, services and money. From these beginnings, the task system of work assignment evolved and along with it the development of an internal slave economy (Berlin 1980:63; Morgan 1982:566).

According to Morgan, the task system of work assignment was perhaps the most distinctive and central feature of enslaved African life in the Low Country. Under the task system, a person was assigned a certain amount of work for the day after which he or she could use their time as they pleased (Morgan 1982:566).

As onerous as pounding seven mortars of rice or splitting 100 poles for fences, trenching, hoeing, or plowing ¼ to a ½ acre of land per day must have been, the burden was mitigated by the knowledge that at the end of the task was “free time.” Time to do what one wished. “Owning” time, making one’s own decisions, owning the products of one’s labor, were powerful ideas, empowering incentives and in the end led to positive outcomes for enslaved low country Africans.

“A]fter they [slaves] finished “their required day’s work, they were given as much land as they could handle on which they planted corn, potatoes, tobacco, peanuts, sugar, watermelons, and pumpkins and bottle pumpkins…. They plant for themselves on Sundays…They sell their own crops and buy some necessary things…” wrote Johan Bolzius of low country slaves in the mid-18th century ((Bolzius 1750:259–60, Translated and edited by Loewald, Starika and Taylor, 1957).

Once gained, “free” time expanded allowing enslaved people not only the opportunity to tend their own crops but also to socialize, grow and sell surplus products, gain personal property through such sales and ultimately to accumulate money to purchase their own freedom and that of their family members.

In South Carolina a series of laws passed between 1686 and 1751 reflect the growing concern of slave holders over the ways in which the Africans chose to spend their “own time.” A 1686 law prohibited the exchange of goods between slaves or slaves and freemen without their master’s permission. Ten years later the lawmakers tried to prohibit slaves felling and carrying away timber on lands other than their masters. In 1714, the legislature prohibited that “slaves plant for themselves any corn, peas, or rice,” apparently to no avail since 20 years later another act was passed allowing patrollers to confiscate all fowls and other provisions found in the possession of “stragling [sic] negroes.” Many planters came to depend upon the foods, goods and services provided to them by the Africans. At best, their dependency must have made them ambivalent about enforcing the prohibitive laws.

Legislated Attempts to Restrain Development of Internal Slave Economy

Year South Carolina Law
1686 Prohibits the exchange of goods between slaves or slaves and freemen without their master’s permission.
1696 Prohibits slaves felling and carrying away timber from lands other than their master’s land.
1714 Prohibits slaves “plant for themselves any corn, peas or rice.”
1734 Patrollers can confiscate all fowls and other provisions found in the possession of “stragling [sic] negroes”
1738 “Hawkers and pedlars [sic]” require a license to sell their wares.
1751 Slaves prohibited from selling produce to anyone other that their master (makes the 1714 law moot)

(Morgan 1982:569–574 )

Plantation account books and estate records attest to African slaves receipt of monetary payments from owners for subsistence products of vegetables, grain, chickens and other fowl, hogs, fish and in one case even seed rice. Henry Laurens advised his newly appointed overseers to: “purchase of your own Negroes all…[the provisions]…that you know Lawfully belongs to themselves at the lowest price they will sell it for… (Hamer, [1968] 2003).”

“Things that Bristol has carried to Market” listed in the receipt book of James Gibbons 1780.

Low country slaves raised crops that reflected their African origins such as okra, groundnuts (peanuts) sesame seed, called Benni, and “Read {sic} peppers.” African vegetables and rice became part of the staple diet of new generations of African Americans and were eaten by planters as well. Both Elias Ball and Eliza Lucas Pinckney mention, for example, “negro” grown peppers in their letters (Morgan 1982:574). Enslaved entrepreneurs branched out from huckstering foods to making and selling other commodities such as canoes, baskets and wax (Ball, 1837).

By the end of the 18th century, the task system was firmly entrenched from South Carolina to Florida, wherever rice was cultivated and planters extended the system to organization of labor in raising sea island cotton. As time passed, the daily tasks became fixed in terms of what planters might expect from enslaved workers. Not only were tasks assigned according to set custom on a particular plantation but also were essentially uniform from plantation to plantation. Workers, according to Morgan, had labor disputes over what constituted a fair days work (1982:578).

Over time, enslaved people used surplus income from the internal economy to buy livestock, including horses, and one at least negotiated his own freedom (Morgan 1982:580). After completing their tasks for the slave master, the African men hunted, fished, worked as carpenters and in other trades to earn money. The women washed clothes, prepared food and cooked for their families, raised chickens and vegetables to eat and to sell. These activities allow the Africans to participate in trade and cash sales through which some men and women earned and saved money to buy themselves and their kin out of slavery. By the time of the Revolutionary War, two or more generations of native-born African Americans, had a variety of occupational skills that they used to earn enough money to buy freedom. However, even those who continued enslavement gained a degree of autonomy through internal economies that developed throughout the colonies. Read what Charles Ball, an enslaved African American had to say around 1800 about working for himself.