Slave Facts



Acknowledging that I have only had room to post three ‘Slave Testimonies’ the following is a collection quick and easy-to-read facts on slavery in the American South. Again, the main aim of this page is to give you a broader understanding of the context surrounding The Color Purple. You may find some of these insights disturbing.

> Many slaves in America refused to eat, wanting to die rather than toil through the regime of slavery. Subsequently, owners either forced their food down their throats, broke their teeth, or shoveled hot molten lead on their heads in an attempt to make them eat food.

> There were many instances on board ships where slaves had thrown themselves over board, thus committing suicide and ensuring a life away from the slave trade.

> Many owners stole slaves from each other. So common it was, steps were taken to identity each slave to each owner, by branding them with an iron on their arm or chest [above].

> Slaves who died in the ‘Middle Passage’ of boats taking them to slave-societies were often simply tossed off the ship without any ceremony or last rites.

> Realising that slaves may often initiate an uprising, the crew on board tied perhaps fifty or sixty men to one long chain, tying their hands and their feet. They may stay in these chains for up to twenty hours a day.

> In some slave societies, black boy slaves often imitated the actions of the white slave owners or their sons on the slaves by whipping and flogging their younger friends.

> Infanticide was common among black slave women. Killing their babies, usually by one swift chop with a knife around the infant’s neck, ensured that their sons and daughters would not experience the horrors of the slave trade.

> Once in slave owning societies, slaves were indoctrinated into Christian religion. Special chapels were built where the men and women were educated. These shrines were used unceremoniously to espouse the owner's attitudes and beliefs. Much of the teaching was taken from the Bible, where the slaves were told to submit to their masters, serve them and not steal, lie or rise up against them. Such conduct was deemed blasphemy against God.

> Rape by the slave owner on a slave woman was not uncommon in the American South. Any objection by the slave woman’s partner would earn him a flogging. In one instance, a man had his ear severed from the rest of his body after attempting to reprove their owner.

> After witnessing many die in cramped, stifling conditions in order to keep slaves fit and healthy masters on ships would order them to dance and sing as a form of exercise. Tired and browbeaten as they were, slaves were often made to do this against their will. What emerged from their crooning were often laments sung in doleful tones, reflecting their misery on the ship.

> Slave-hunters were not uncommon either on boats heading to lands where the population was comprised of predominantly free people. These slave-hunters were usually unemployed but made a living from catching rebel slaves who had passed through the terminal without being noticed. On returning the escapists, the slave-hunter would usually be presented with a sizeable sum from the owner.

> In a risky attempt to deport himself from Richmond to Philadelphia slave Henry "Box" Brown comically had himself sent in a box by mail from the slave-owning society. His provisions for the twenty-six hour journey were a few small biscuits and the contents of his own bladder for drink. The package was addressed to a Mr. J. Smith of Arch Street, where upon arrival, Brown leapt out and said to those witnessing his arrival "How do you do gentlemen?"

> Ill slaves were a burden upon any captain once the boat had docked. In one act of unbelievable barbarity, a Liverpool captain conned a Jewish buyer into accepting an ill slave who was suffering from the flu. Knowing that the slave was suffering from constant diarrhoea the captain had a surgeon block up the slaves’ anus with oakum, so that they would not appear sick in any way. The slaves were sold, though upon noticing the excruciating pain with which the slaves were suffering, the buyer had the back passage unblocked. [in the picture potential buyers check over newly brought slaves.]

> For one slave, Moses Roper, the brutality surpassed even his imagination. After being caught after unsuccessfully attempting to escape Roper had tar poured onto his face. This was then rubbed in his face, and his face was then set on fire. The Sunday after, he was forced to carry fifty pound weights around with him, and having being caught again trying to escape, his hands were locked in a vice and his fingers were crushed.

> After the horrors of the slave trade, retaliations by ex-slaves upon their masters were common. Some attacked in droves, and punishment from the masters was often met with witch-craft from tormented slaves, though Nat Turner here explains that magic was not their only method:

"We started from there for Mrs. Reese's, maintaining the most perfect silence on our march, where finding the door unlocked, we entered, and murdered Mrs. Reese in her bed, while sleeping; her son awoke, but it was only to sleep the sleep of death, he had only time to say who is that, and he was no more. From Mrs. Reese's we went to Mrs. Turner's, a mile distant, which we reached about sunrise, on Monday morning. Henry, Austin, and Sam, went to the still, where, finding Mr. Peebles, Austin shot him, and the rest of us went to the house . . ."

Compiled and written by Matthew Kane [2001]

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