Fare of Slaves on Plantations in 1850

This anonymous report from the south was published in Frederick Douglass and M.R. Delaney’s North Star in 1850 and reproduced here in its entirety.

A more loathsome and disgusting place cannot be imagined, than the huts in a negro yard of a plantation. They are generally about twenty feet square, and the hands on a plantation are divided into families, each of which occupies one of these pens.

The families number from five to twenty, and the arrangements for sleeping are miserable in the extreme, and what is used for their beds is seldom if ever washed, or cleansed in any manner, and is used until rotted or worn into shreds.

The same practice is pursued with their clothing. It consists of a coarse wrought fabric, of cotton and wool, and also of linen. The men wear pantaloons, and a heavy stout frock. The women who work in the field wear only a long frock, without under-clothes of any kind. These are put on and never changed or cleansed, or taken off, night or day, till they are worn out.

The provision for clothing the slaves is usually one suit a year to each negro, and they are generally obliged to make this last or go without. But many cannot, and you will often see negroes with only the tattered and torn rags remaining on them, as evidence of a slight degree of modesty and shame, that is manifest in keeping them around him.

And thus they live in the most filthy, degraded and beastly condition that can be conceived, and there is not a single provision of any kind, either in food, clothing or cleanliness, or for beds, or dwellings, or labor, but what is calculated to debilitate, exhaust and destroy the physical powers, and produce disease and death; and I make the assurance, without the fear of contradiction, that there is scarcely a plantation in the whole range of the sugar and cotton growing districts, if examined by a competent board of health, that would not excite their astonishment, that human beings could live, even an average of seven years.

Slave Cabin Illustration

Slave Cabin Illustration

In the first place, it will be found that many herds of slaves are kept on short rations, having allowed to each one from three to three and a half pounds of meat a week, with only corn meal, which they wet with water, and roast on the fire. This is their regular daily food, and the meat is often the most loathsome, disgusting, rotten mass that can be imagined.

On this point I am aware it will be said there are but few, very few indeed, of such cases. But it is not true, and every produce dealer in the city of New Orleans, if he has not the fear of the planter before his eyes, will bear testimony to this fact, for I have seen it myself, and know that they sell thousands of packages, weighing from eight to ten hundred each, of smoked hams and sides of pork , that were so rotten that the bones had become loose and separated from the meat, and when they were opened for the examination of the Planter, the maggots would roll over the side of the cask upon the floor.

An instance of this kind I saw in the store of a produce dealer in the winter of 1837. A planter from Mississippi bought eleven casks of smoked meat from a merchant in Lafayette street, which he had purchased the day before for one and a half cents per pound. He sold it to the planter for one and three-fourth cents, and when the casks were opened they were literally alive with maggots.

After the purchase was made, the clerk, a fine, honest New Jerseyman, being astonished at what he had done in selling such stuff to be eaten by human beings, for he knew that a dog in New Jersey could not be found but what would turn from it, asked the planter why he bought such food for his negroes?

Slave Family and Cabin

Slave Family and Cabin

The planter replied, that it was pretty hard times and cotton was low, and the boys do about as well on it as any. – Now in view of this, I know it will be said again, that “such are rare cases;” but the reports of sales of meat in New Orleans tell a different account; for there are hundreds and thousands of such packages of rotten putrid meat sold to planters every year, and the negroes are obliged to eat it or starve, and at the same time the planters tell you “the boys do about as well on it.

–A Practicing Christian.

Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: THE NORTH STAR
Date: April 26, 1850
Title: Fare of Slaves on Plantations
Location: Rochester, New York


About The North Star

North Star

North Star

In 1847, with Frederick Douglass and M.R. Delaney as editors, The North Star was established: “…It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression…

During a two year stay in Britain and Ireland, several of Douglass’s supporters bought his freedom and assisted with the purchase of a printing press. With this assistance Douglass was determined to begin an African American newspaper that would engage the anti-slavery movement politically. Upon his return to the United States in March 1847 Douglass shared his ideas of the North Star with his mentors. Ignoring the advice of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York to publish the first edition. When questioned on his decision to create the North Star, Douglass is said to have responded,

I still see before me a life of toil and trials…, but, justice must be done, the truth must be told…I will not be silent.

With this conflict of interests, Douglass was able to achieve an unconstrained independence to write freely on topics that covered his analysis of the Constitution as an antislavery document, his desires for political action necessary to bring emancipation, and the support of the women’s rights’ movement

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