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The Varieties of Slave Labor

Daniel C. Littlefield
Carolina Professor of History
University of South Carolina
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

Slavery was work, often very hard work, sustained by force and the threat of humiliation and separation from family and community. Most commonly,Slave labor differed according to period and location. it was routinized and mind-numbing, a repetition of the same tasks or movements, changed only by the season of the year or time of day. This image gave rise to the expression “factories in the field,” evoking an early industrial model where workers were no more than cogs in a machine.
Work on a sugar plantation.
Work on a sugar plantation.
Yet plantation labor was not always and everywhere the same. Work on sugar plantations in the West Indies was not the same as that on rice plantations in South Carolina, which was different again from what enslaved laborers did on tobacco farms in the Chesapeake. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when slavery extended to the Middle Colonies and New England, work there was even more different, at least in the variety of tasks and the influence an enslaved person might exercise over his or her work (they could sometimes initiate a change of master), though in other ways, particularly in the element of compulsion, it was much the same. Moreover, labor in all these places changed over time and was dependent upon advances in mechanization, stages of plantation development, and changes in management outlooks. Everywhere circumstances diverged between those who merely did common labor and those who exercised skills.

In the 1700s plantation owners tried to maintain self-sufficiency based on the varied skills of their slaves. In eighteenth-century North America, planters in the Chesapeake expected to have a large number of skilled slaves as well as common laborers. “I have my Flocks and my Herds, my Bond-men and Bond-women, and every soart [sic] of Trade amongst my own Servants,” wrote William Byrd II in 1727, who expressed an ideal of being able to “live in a kind of Independence on
Slaves repairing a road. Olmstead, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States.
Slaves repairing a road.
From A Journey in the Seaboard Slave
by Frederick Law Olmsted.
everyone but Providence.” James Grant described a similar attitude as existing in the lower South, including South Carolina and Georgia: “the Planter has Tradesmen of all kinds in his Gang of Slaves, and ‘tis a Rule with them, never to pay Money for what can be made upon their Estates, not a Lock, a Hing [sic] or a Nail if they can avoid it.” In other words, planters expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled functions required around plantations. In a country that was not as developed as it would be in the nineteenth century,
A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War by Letitia M. Burwell.
From A Girl's Life in
Virginia Before the War

by Letitia M. Burwell.
plantations had to have artisans to produce locally what might have been easy to get elsewhere at a later period. Talented bondspeople also ensured the planters’ personal comfort, as in the case of expert and sensitive body servants. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had accomplished cooks, and Jefferson’s was French-trained. One could not readily dispense with such people. Whether making boats or barrels, building barns or houses, making furniture (either fine or just functional), being able to make or repair harnesses or do other leatherwork, or various kinds of ironwork, people with artisanal capability were in short supply in the eighteenth century and not everywhere in the nineteenth and expensive where found. Of course, the possession of skills gave slaves leverage because planters desired to keep them at home and at work rather A slave's skill level and value to the master often determined how he/she was treated.than, by bad treatment, encouraging them to flee. If the planter were a small one, just getting started, he might be working with his slaves, giving rise to what some scholars have called “sawbuck equality,” evoked by the image of a master and slave in early South Carolina who worked several days sawing logs, each facing the other on opposite ends of a whip saw. Their very real social distance was mitigated by a mutual awareness of the limitations of force in an inchoate society. The restraints of compulsion were moderated by the enslaved person’s pride of accomplishment as well as the master’s acknowledgment of his value to the plantation enterprise.

Lock-step, highly supervised gang labor replaced traditional patterns of individual work. Most slaves, however, were common laborers. At the earliest stage of plantation development slaves, even common laborers, worked in a traditional fashion, with each being responsible for a multitude of tasks under relatively little supervision. As plantations developed, gang labor superseded traditional laboring methods. Under this system, the processes of cultivation were divided into simple tasks capable of minute supervision, where field hands worked in lock-step under the eye of a white overseer or black driver (foreman). He carried a whip as an emblem of authority and a means of coercion. Gang labor developed at different times in various places and was perhaps first closely associated with sugar cultivation in Barbados. Historians do not agree on when it first appeared there but associate it with a transition from white indentured servitude to African slavery and development of a new plantation structure that more efficiently and economically produced sugar. One historian argues that it developed uniquely among the English and because their cultural outlook permitted them to apply so harsh a regimentation only to people as ethnically distinct as Africans, but not everyone accepts this racial interpretation. Race may have influenced the development of gang labor.Englishmen treated English indentured servants with extreme rigor, certainly more rigorously in America than people in the same condition were treated in England, though legal considerations, however laxly regarded, imposed some limits, as did the realization, at least in North America, that some of the mistreated would eventually command free status and political influence. To the extent that no such restraints applied to Africans, race may be said to have influenced the development of gang labor. It was common in Barbados by the eighteenth century and served as an example for other English plantation regions.

Edward King's The Great South
From Edward King's The Great South.
In eighteenth-century Chesapeake, tobacco plantations were divided into various units specializing in growth of the staple crop but also in the production of corn and other foodcrops, the care of livestock, and other products necessary to support the enterprise. The home unit, comprising the plantation mansion and out-buildings housing cooks and craftsmen, also had storage sheds and a dock to receive supplies and send off tobacco. The region was characterized by gang labor, modified by the stage of plantation development and the task at hand. The master laid claim to the full service of the enslaved who normally worked from sunrise to sunset. Planting, hoeing, harvesting, and preparing the fields before and after these major events could be hard and routine work unrelieved by much variety. They took place under the watchful eye of an overseer who insisted on a set pace and punished those who fell short. Herding might provide greater freedom and more contrast but also entailed more responsibilities in ensuring the safety of the animals. By the middle of the century some Chesapeake plantations became more diversified, growing wheat and other crops which often required fewer slaves and labor was less gang-like in terms of the number of workers supervised, but no less regulated.

Growing rice was more difficult and dangerous than raising other crops.In the eighteenth-century Carolina low country, including coastal Georgia, where planters specialized in rice, work was harder because preparing the land for cultivation usually meant claiming marshlands or swampy regions. One needed to construct dikes to hold water and sluices to let it off. These dikes required considerable effort to build and maintain, in the company of snakes, alligators, and other vermin,
Rice culture on the Ogeechee, near Savannah, Georgia.
Rice culture on the Ogeechee,
near Savannah, Georgia.
using only picks, shovels, axes, and other hand tools. Slaves had to plant, weed, and harvest in soggy, sickness-inducing fields. When, towards the end of the century, planters adapted rice cultivation to the tide-flow, which allowed the fields along certain rivers to be inundated with fresh water when the tides came in, the slaves’ work was lessened at weeding time because flooding inhibited the growth of weeds, but the method required larger levees and sluices and building of canals between fields to carry off the crop, all of which had to be maintained. Fields of standing water brought mosquitos and the diseases they carried, which the enslaved had to combat, along with hungry rodents that invaded the fields and burrowing ones that attacked the dikes. These characteristics of rice planting made labor there more taxing than in tobacco fields but labor took place under the task system which permitted a laborer to have time to him- or herself once the task was done. He could then hunt, fish, or do other work for his own or his family’s benefit.

Rice plantations in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia operated on the task system which allowed slaves free time when their work was done. How the task system originated has also been debated because it certainly diverged from the gang labor system that eventually dominated Barbados whence many early South Carolina settlers came, though it apparently had not fully developed before most of them left. Among the reasons advanced for the task system has been the supposition that the character of rice, being hardy, needing a scattered work force, and not requiring minute supervision, was suitable to the method; another is that wealthy South Carolina planters, inclined towards absenteeism, left work initiatives to their slaves, and they, referring
View of a rice field in South Carolina.
View of a rice field in South Carolina.
to an African background, insisted on a system that left them some autonomy; a third is that the semi-tropical environment of steamy temperatures and dangerous reptiles and copious insects facilitated the practices. None of these explanations entirely satisfies, particularly ones that absolve humans and blame the crop or the environment. Perhaps the most reasonable suggests that the system grew out of the planters need to have slaves support themselves while the plantation economy developed and their inability to reclaim all of the slave’s time once it had done so, even when they supplied more of his livelihood. The struggle cost more than its value in lost production.

Black slave drivers were critical to work on some plantations. Cultivation in the rice country took place under the direction of black drivers who served under white overseers but directly over the field workers. They allocated the tasks and helped to set the pace. They had less time to themselves than workers who completed their jobs early but the driver was entitled to the help of other workers in his own enterprises. (Of course, not all workers finished with time to spare; maybe even most did not but enough to provide hope and impart value to the system.) The driver had to be very knowledgeable about the crop: when to flood, when to draw down the water, when to drain, and when to harvest. These decisions could make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful crop and drivers often knew these things better than overseers. In fact, some planters dispensed with overseers altogether and depended upon their drivers. A respected driver had a great deal of authority and was frequently a leader in the black community before and after slavery.

By the nineteenth century the development of a cotton South, stretching from the eastern seaboard all the way to Texas, flattened somewhat the appearance of slavery and increasing mechanization, to which slaves had to adjust,
Slaves working in a cotton field. From Tupelo by John H. Aughey.
Slaves working in a cotton field.
From Tupelo by John H. Aughey.
made slavery and slave work a more “factory-like” enterprise for most. A more developed and interconnected countryside, limiting the possibilities, put most slaves into the fields. Men and women, indeed more women than men, and children as young as ten years old, labored under the gang system in a way that came to symbolize the “peculiar institution.” Frederick Olmsted provided the classic description: “They are constantly and steadily driven up to their work, and the stupid, plodding, machine-manner in which they labour, is painful to witness. . . . . I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, . . . often coming upon them suddenly, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the labourers, or causing one of them, so as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground.”

He noted the presence of a black driver, whip in hand, urging them on. Plantations still required artisans, for which more men were trained than women, but for the vast majority of the enslaved, labor was almost certainly duller and less varied than in the colonial period. Tobacco still grew in the Chesapeake, rice in South Carolina, and sugar in Louisiana, where refining obliged special capabilities and provided opportunities for a few more men, but practically everywhere else slaves labored in cotton. In all of these places, excepting coastal South Carolina and Georgia, they labored in gangs.

Guiding Student Discussion

Stress the time span and geographic scope of slavery in the United Sates. Most students relate slavery to the cotton South but is important for students to realize that it had a longer and more varied history than that, spanning more years in the colonial period than in the nineteenth century. Equally important is the fact that in this early period it extended to the Middle Colonies and New England. This recognition will allow teachers along the North Atlantic seaboard to look at areas in their own regions where slaves labored, while still considering the more traditional perspective. In New England and the Middle Colonies slaves worked on dairy farms and aboard ship, in wheat farms and on the docks, in gardens and homes, at printing shops or as personal attendants. They might do all of these things in the South as well but plantation slavery was a southern institution and slave labor there was more important and lasting than in the North. It is also important to note that gang labor and the task system were not mutually exclusive practices but represented extremes within which planters might organize their labor. Some jobs might be better performed by task assignment than by gangs even in a region where gang labor prevailed and vice versa. In a few places, as in the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, slaves even worked in factories, and in Richmond and other urban locales they worked as teamsters, stevedores, porters and dockhands, to mention only a few of the urban tasks they performed. Consequently, the variety of slave labor was greater than students sometimes assume.

Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond, Virginia. From Edward King's The Great South.
Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond, Virginia.
From Edward King's The Great South.

Students should also realized that slavery was a relationship between human beings and while authority emanated from the top, a wise planter did not make decisions without taking into account the reaction of his laborers. Slavery depended upon force but it worked best when slaves cooperated; planters had to compromise as well as command. James Henry Hammond, for example, soundly resented the autonomy provided by the task system and tried with great brutality to impose gang labor on his slaves but ultimately had to accommodate them. He learned in the nineteenth century what most low country South Carolina planters learned in the eighteenth, that he could not grow crops if he spent more time punishing slaves or hunting them down than in supervising while they worked. Planters succeeded when they provided an environment in which enslaved people labored as willingly as could be expected under the circumstances, and Wise planters tried to get slaves to "buy into the system." the task system’s offer of free time and the chance to do for themselves fell into this category. More than one planter commented that slaves were less likely to abscond if that involved leaving something they were building or growing for their own use. Planters in gang-labor regions had to provide other incentives, maybe extra food or drink, additional clothing or other trinkets, perhaps a little money, for better-than-average performance. Of course, perceptive students might realize that getting slaves to “buy into the system,” to conspire in their own enslavement, was an even more subversive feature of slavery than the physical coercion it entailed. One might therefore discuss the psychological consequences of slavery both in terms of the master’s desire, as in Hammond’s case, to encourage or enforce dependence, and the slaves’ quest for some control over their lives. What did it mean that field hands obliged an accommodation even though they could not overthrow the system? How did the possession of managerial skills and craftsmanship and the slaves’ awareness of their own talents affect their sense of self-worth and counteract the prevailing image that they were ignorant and unable to think or care for themselves?

One might consider that the distinction sometimes made between field hands and house servants, portraying the one as having a much harder lot, can be overdrawn. Domestics occasionally had better food and clothing but, where they existed, these advantages were offset by the tension of being under more constant Tasks considered unskilled today in slavery times required considerable judgment and discrimination.scrutiny and forever on-call that closer contact with the master’s family brought. Field hands at least normally had evenings to themselves. Moreover, many types of domestic work, such as washing, which might appear relatively unskilled today, required both strength and discrimination because it was not a simple matter of putting clothes in a machine but of heating water in iron kettles, using dangerous soaps made from lye or other corrosive materials, bringing water and clothes to a boil,
Interior of a slave kitchen.
Interior of a slave kitchen.
and removing them without scalding oneself and others around. At a more primitive level, it might involve pounding clothes in a stream. In either case, it required a close-to-craftsman’s touch to effect the purpose without destroying the object. Ironing was also a cumbersome and dangerous process. Cooking, successfully done, demanded the art of composition in producing appealing recipes, the benefit of experience in knowing how to move food around in a hearth or on an iron stove or in an oven in such a way as to bake or cook evenly without burning, including the ability to judge temperatures as well as to move heavy implements, and required definite talents not always easily acquired. Despite the obvious value of accomplished domestics, the conditions of their labor did not inspire harmony and inevitable mistakes could bring unjustifiable wrath from both master and mistress sometimes merely because either or all were having bad days. Opportunities for such contretemps were multiple because slavery everywhere involved a contest of wills. In many cases, however, domestics served only part-time in the master’s abode, who might not be wealthy enough to afford a separate staff of house servants; they might labor in the master’s dwelling, sleep in the slave quarters, and find themselves in the fields during harvest season.

Shifting focus slightly, one might encourage students to consider the psychological affects of slave labor on the master class. For one thing, there developed a notion associating hard labor with Ask students to consider the effects of slavery on the master class.enslaved people and as something that people of quality avoided. This idea was scarcely modified by the consideration that various immigrants did similar work because they were stigmatized as a result of its association with blackness and slavery. That was one reason why immigrants avoided the slave South. Another more complicated issue is that enslaved people often possessed extraordinary talents and exercised considerable authority during slavery, without which the institution could not operate, but these facts were inconsistent with an ideology of white supremacy that guided southern social and political relations by the nineteenth century. The fact that most slaves were unskilled and uneducated supplied cover but could not have extinguished doubt among those who thought deeply about the nature of their society. There is the caution, however, that human beings have shown themselves to be peculiarly adept at holding contradictory beliefs and clinging to habits even at a psychic cost. There is the additional caution that most people probably do not think much about their customs at all. On the emotional level is the reflection that servants who acted as wet nurses or nannies, frequently establishing strong ties with their charges and influencing their culture and outlook in acknowledged and unacknowledged ways, instilled attitudes and expressions that maturing youth had difficulty shedding, if ever they did so.

Historians Debate

The subject of slavery and its function as a labor system has been of great interest in recent years, particularly as changing social currents shifted attention to American race relations and the historical background of those relationships. The first scholar to give American slavery serious attention was Ulrich B. Phillips writing at the beginning of the twentieth century. In American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), along with numerous articles and edited works, he gave extended treatment to the organization and regulation of plantation labor. As a southern defender of white supremacy, however, he gave relatively little attention to the slave except as a passive object of white direction. He viewed slavery in a paternalistic fashion, minimizing violence and stressing harmony between master and slave. He viewed African Americans as inferior, lacking in initiative, and unable to care for themselves, characteristics that suited them for the toil of slavery and inclined them to accept their master’s leadership. In his view, slavery was a social relationship rather than an economic one; indeed, he regarded slavery as an uneconomic drag on the South, partly because of the slave’s slothfulness and inefficiency, and as a way to rescue benighted trolls from primitive backwardness. Because he saw only torpor, docility and dim-wittedness among the slaves, his admission of give-and-take in the master-slave relationship was a function of the planter’s paternal outlook rather than of the slave’s assertiveness and self-awareness, and the presence of a few slaves with ability did not soften his general view of slavery was as a way to regulate race relations and to control an indolent and child-like people. Although imprisoned within the racialist notions of the early twentieth century, he nevertheless set the parameters of subsequent scholarship.

A changing social climate led to a reconsideration of the picture sketched by Phillips. One consequence of the Second World War was a post-war discrediting of racism and a rejection of the assumption that black people enslaved on American plantations were innately inferior. Operating within Phillips’ framework but rejecting his racial assumptions, Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956) viewed slavery as a repressive institution that required extreme physical coercion to oblige other humans to unrequited toil. Black people were no less intelligent or capable than white people, inclined towards rebelliousness in situations of apparent injustice, and requiring superior force to compel their submission. Where Phillips found paternal compassion, Stampp uncovered brutal exploitation. Slavery was an economic system and existed because people made money from it but it was not the most efficacious way to manage labor and the South suffered because of it.

Economic historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, sharing Stampp’s social attitudes, disagreed with his economic argument. In Time On The Cross (1974), they took issue with the notion that slavery was uneconomic and slave laborers inefficient. Comparing output per worker they found the slaves’ exceeded that of northern free laborers and that slavery was a spur to southern agriculture and a rational choice for southern planters. Indeed, they argued that slavery surpassed in efficiency by a considerable margin the northern practice of family farming. They credited the enslaved for much of this success. Rather than incompetent dolts (an assessment they considered racist even among those who rejected racialist assumptions), they saw workers who absorbed the Protestant ethic and responded to incentives rather than punishments to impel an expanding southern economy. They adduced an econometric model they viewed as “scientific” and as providing the basis for a more objective account than previous studies of slave labor. But their findings, highly publicized, were also highly controversial and perhaps were most effectively refuted in an essay by Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch in “Sambo Makes Good, or Were Slaves Imbued with the Protestant Work Ethic” (in Paul A. David et al., Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery [1976]). Gutman and Sutch charged that Fogel and Engerman paid more attention to their model than to the evidence and that much of their data were unrepresentative. They particularly ridiculed the diminished role of compulsion in Fogel and Engerman’s model because, among other reasons, it seemed to suggest that slaves embraced their condition: that slavery was a career choice rather than forced labor. The issue of accommodation and the nature of the relationship between master and slave was a big part of Eugene Genovese’s work. In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972) he used a paternalist model, which he was careful to assert did not mean gentle or genial, to show an organic relationship as existing between the planters and their laborers. Within this framework he was able to write with particular sensitivity about the complex mixture of discord and affection that governed work in the Big House and the constant tension surrounding drivers and other bondsmen in authority, caught as they were between the apparent source of their power and a freighted responsibility to their community. But the most original advance in looking at slave labor was made by Peter Wood’s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974) because it shifted focus to the colonial period and to the lower South, which had largely been neglected and where slaves had a much stronger influence than historians had previously considered. Not only did his work expand the range of activities that engaged the enslaved, but he regarded their African background as contributing to their talents and usefulness. His work set the stage for an entirely new look at slave labor and has, in one way or another, influenced much of what has come since. To sample more recent studies that consider slave labor and its economic and social consequences look at Ira Berlin, “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America,” American Historical Review 85 (1980), and S. Max Edelson, Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (2006).

Daniel C. Littlefield was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1988-89. He has been Carolina Professor of History at the University of South Carolina since August 1999 and has authored Revolutionary Citizens: African Americans, 1776-1804 (1997) and Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (1981). He has published various articles, encyclopedia entries, book reviews and book chapters, most recently "John Jay, the Revolutionary Generation and Slavery," in New York History, January 2000, which was co-winner of the Kerr Prize of the New York State Historical Association for best article in that issue.

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Littlefield, Daniel C. “The Varieties of Slave Labor.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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