Slave Punishments

James Ramsay, a doctor working for several sugar plantations in St Kitts, was shocked by the way the slaves were treated by the overseers. Ramsay later recalled in his book, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784): "The ordinary punishments of slaves, for the common crimes of neglect, absence from work, eating the sugar cane, theft, are cart whipping, beating with a stick, sometimes to the breaking of bones, the chain, an iron crook about the neck... a ring about the ankle, and confinement in the dungeon. There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs, so as to make amputation necessary, beating out of eyes, and castration... In short, in the place of decency, sympathy, morality,and religion; slavery produces cruelty and oppression. It is true, that the unfeeling application of the ordinary punishments ruins the constitution, and shortens the life of many a poor wretch."

The law provided slaves with virtually no protection from their masters. On large plantations this power was delegated to overseers. These men were under considerable pressure from the plantation owners to maximize profits. They did this by bullying the slaves into increasing productivity. The punishments used against slaves judged to be under-performing included the use of the whip. Sometimes slave-owners resorted to mutilating and branding their slaves.

William Box Brown, a slave in Richmond, later wrote about an overseer on his tobacco plantation. "Stephen Bennett, who had a wooden leg; and who used to creep up behind the slaves to hear what they had to talk about in his absence; but his wooden leg generally betrayed him by coming into contact with something which would make a noise, and that would call the attention of the slaves to what he was about. He was a very mean man in all his ways, and was very much disliked by the slaves. He used to whip them, often, in a shameful manner. On one occasion I saw him take a slave, whose name was Pinkney, and make him take him off his shirt; he then tied his hands and gave him one hundred lashes on his bare back; and all this, because he lacked three pounds of his task, which was valued at six cents."

Thomas Johnson withslave whip and chains
Thomas Johnson with
slave whip and chains

Olaudah Equiano blamed brutal overseers for the worst treatment of slaves: "Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants. These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes."

Some punishments were associated with certain areas. William Wells Brown argues that slaveowners in Virginia smoked slaves. "In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to chastise one, he would tie them up in the smoke-house, and whip them; after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them." Moses Roper claimed that in South Carolina they used to "drive nails into a hogshead so as to leave the point of the nail just protruding in the inside of the cask. Into this he used to put his slaves for punishment, and roll them down a very long and steep hill."

Harriet Jacobs, a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, explained in her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861): "There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder. Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope round a man's body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh."

Lewis Clarke, a house slave in Kentucky, described in his autobiography the different methods used by his mistress: "Instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory-sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife-handle, the heavy heel of her slipper, and an oak club, a foot and a half in length and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered."

States with large numbers of slaves introduced their own slave codes. The main idea behind these codes was to keep the slaves under the tight control of their owners. The death-penalty was introduced for a whole range of offences. Slaves could be executed for murder, rape, burglary, arson and assault upon a white person. Plantation owners believed that this severe discipline would make the slaves too scared to rebel.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) James Ramsay, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784)

The ordinary punishments of slaves, for the common crimes of neglect, absence from work, eating the sugar cane, theft, are cart whipping, beating with a stick, sometimes to the breaking of bones, the chain, an iron crook about the neck... a ring about the ankle, and confinement in the dungeon. There have been instances of slitting of ears, breaking of limbs, so as to make amputation necessary, beating out of eyes, and castration... In short, in the place of decency, sympathy, morality,and religion; slavery produces cruelty and oppression. It is true, that the unfeeling application of the ordinary punishments ruins the constitution, and shortens the life of many a poor wretch.

(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

Two slaves, who were perhaps not so completely cowed as the rest, said to my master, who was about to flog them, "No, massa, we not going to be flogged so much, we won't submit." "What is that you say?" my master said, starting back. They repeated, "We are not going to allow you to beat us as you have done." "How will you prevent it?" he said. "You'll see, you'll see, massa," speaking half threateningly. He was evidently afraid of them. When they went home at night he spoke mildly to them, and told them, "he only wanted them to do their work, that it would be better if they could get on in the fields without him. Don't hurry yourselves, my boys."

For two or three days he never went much among them, and when he did he spoke in a very quiet, subdued manner. But mounted negroes were sent with letters to all the plantations around. The slaves had been sent to a species of barn where they shell the Indian corn. Suddenly above a hundred slaveholders, armed with revolvers, marched from different points, and at one time, evidently agreed upon, surrounded the place where the negroes were. All the slaves were ordered out, and the two who had refused to be flogged were made to strip, and my master first had one tied up, and flogged him as hard as he could for some time, the poor slave calling out, "Oh, pray, massa! Oh, pray, massa!"

My master, pausing to take breath, one of the slaveholders said, "I would not flog him in that way, I would put him on a blacksmith's fire, and have the slaves to hold him until I blew the bellows to roast him alive." Then my master started again and flogged until the poor fellow was one mass of blood and raw flesh. The other was tied up and served in a similar manner, one of the slaveholders saying he ought to be tied to a tree and burnt alive. And now I would ask, How can an unarmed, an unorganized, degraded, cowed set of negroes prevent this treatment? The slaveholders can and do flog them to death, and nothing more is thought of it than of a dog being killed.

(3) Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

One man told me that he had sold 41,000 negroes, and that he once cut of a negro man's leg for running away. I told him that the Christian doctrine taught us to do unto others as we would that others should do unto us. He then said that his scheme had the desired effect - it cured that man and some others of running away.

Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus, by repeated cruelties, are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants. These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.

(4) Advertisement in the North Carolina Standard (28th July, 1838)

Twenty dollars reward. Runaway from the subscriber, a negro woman and two children; the woman is tall and black, and a few days before she went off burnt her on the left side of her face with the letter M. Her children are both boys, the oldest is in his seventh year; he is a mulatto and has blue eyes; the youngest is a black, and is in his fifth year.

(5) St. Louis Gazette (6th November, 1845)

A wealthy man here had a boy named Reuben, almost white, whom he caused to be branded in the face with the words; 'A slave for life.'

(6) Advert in Mississippi Gazette (23rd July, 1836)

A negro man who says his name is Josiah, that he belongs to Mr. John Martin, living in Louisiana, twenty miles below Nathchez. Josiah is five feet eight inches high, heavy built, copper colour; his back very much scarred with the whip, and branded on the thigh and hips in three or four places thus:'J.M.' The rim of his right ear has been bitten or cut off. He is about 31 years of age. Had on, when committed, pantaloons, made of bed-ticking, cotton coat, and an old fur hat very much worn. The owner of the above described negro is requested to comply requisitions of law, in such, cases made and provided for.

(7) Henry Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)

About this time Wilson Gregory, who was our overseer, died, and his place was supplied by a man named Stephen Bennett, who had a wooden leg; and who used to creep up behind the slaves to hear what they had to talk about in his absence; but his wooden leg generally betrayed him by coming into contact with something which would make a noise, and that would call the attention of the slaves to what he was about. He was a very mean man in all his ways, and was very much disliked by the slaves. He used to whip them, often, in a shameful manner. On one occasion I saw him take a slave, whose name was Pinkney, and make him take him off his shirt; he then tied his hands and gave him one hundred lashes on his bare back; and all this, because he lacked three pounds of his task, which was valued at six cents.

(8) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

During the ten years that I lived with Mrs. Banton, I do not think there were as many days, when she was at home, that I, or some other slave, did not receive some kind of beating or abuse at her hands. It seemed as though she could not live nor sleep unless some poor back was smarting, some head beating with pain, or some eye filled with tears, around her. Her tender mercies were indeed cruel. She brought up her children to imitate her example. Two of them manifested some dislike to the cruelties taught them by their mother, but they never stood high in favor with her; indeed, any thing like humanity or kindness to a slave, was looked upon by her as a great offence.

Her instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory-sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife-handle, the heavy heel of her slipper; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found out.

One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. This instrument was carefully preserved for a period of four years. Every day, for that time, I was compelled to see that hated tool of cruelty lying in the chair by my side. The least degree of delinquency either in not doing all the appointed work, or in look or behavior, was visited with a beating from this oak club. That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage.

(9) William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847)

Major Freeland was formerly from Virginia, and was a horse-racer, cock-fighter, gambler, and withal an inveterate drunkard. There were ten or twelve servants in the house, and when he was present, it was cut and slash - knock down and drag out. In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to chastise one, he would tie them up in the smoke-house, and whip them; after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them. This he called "Virginia play."

I complained to my master of the treatment which I received from Major Freeland; but it made no difference. He cared nothing about it, so long as he received the money for my labor. After living with Major Freeland five or six months, I ran away, and went into the woods back of the city; and when night came on, I made my way to my master's farm, but was afraid to be seen, knowing that if Mr. Haskell, the overseer, should discover me, I should be again carried back to Major Freeland; so I kept in the woods. One day, while in the woods, I heard the barking and howling of dogs, and in a short time they came so near that I knew them to be the bloodhounds of Major Benjamin O'Fallon. He kept five or six, to hunt runaway slaves with.

As soon as I was convinced that it was them, I knew there was no chance of escape. I took refuge in the top of a tree, and the hounds were soon at its base, and there remained until the hunters came up in a half or three quarters of an hour afterwards. There were two men with the dogs, who, as soon as they came up, ordered me to descend. I came down, was tied, and taken to St. Louis jail. Major Freeland soon made his appearance, and took me out, and ordered me to follow him, which I did. After we returned home, I was tied up in the smoke-house, and was very severely whipped. After the major had flogged me to his satisfaction, he sent out his son Robert, a young man eighteen or twenty years of age, to see that I was well smoked. He made a fire of tobacco stems, which soon set me to coughing and sneezing. This, Robert told me, was the way his father used to do to his slaves in Virginia. After giving me what they conceived to be a decent smoking, I was untied and again set to work.

(10) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder.

Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope round a man's body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. On his own plantation, he required very strict obedience to the eighth commandment. But depredations on the neighbors were allowable, provided the culprit managed to evade detection or suspicion. If a neighbor brought a charge of theft against any of his slaves, he was browbeaten by the master, who assured him that his slaves had enough of every thing at home, and had no inducement to steal. No sooner was the neighbor's back turned, than the accused was sought out, and whipped.

His brother, if not equal in wealth, was at least equal in cruelty. His bloodhounds were well trained. Their pen was spacious, and a terror to the slaves. They were let loose on a runaway, and, if they tracked him, they literally tore the flesh from his bones. When this slaveholder died, his shrieks and groans were so frightful that they appalled his own friends. His last words were, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me."

(11) Moses Roper made several attempts trying to escape from his master. He wrote about the punishment he received in Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838)

Mr. Gooch then obtained the assistance of another slave-holder, and tied me up in his blacksmith's shop, and gave me fifty lashes with a cow-hide. He then put a long chain, weighing twenty-five pounds, round my neck, and sent me into a field, into which he followed me with the cow-hide, intending to set his slaves to flog me again.

He then chained me down in a log-pen with a 40 lb. chain, and made me lie on the damp earth all night. In the morning after his breakfast he came to me, and without giving me any breakfast, tied me to a large heavy barrow, which is usually drawn by a horse, and made me drag it to the cotton field for the horse to use in the field. Thus, the reader will see, that it was of no possible use to my master to make me drag it to the field, and not through it; his cruelty went so far as actually to make me the slave of his horse, and thus to degrade me.

Mr. Gooch had a female slave about eighteen years old, who also had been a domestic slave, and through not being able to fulfill her task, had run away; which slave he was at this time punishing for that offence. On the third day, he chained me to this female slave, with a large chain of 40 lbs. weight round the neck. It was most harrowing to my feelings thus to be chained to a young female slave, for whom I would rather have suffered a hundred lashes than she should have been thus treated. He kept me chained to her during the week, and repeatedly flogged us both while thus chained together, and forced us to keep up with the other slaves, although retarded by the heavy weight of the log-chain.

A large farmer, Colonel M'Quiller, in Cashaw County, South Carolina, was in the habit of driving nails into a hogshead so as to leave the point of the nail just protruding in the inside of the cask. Into this he used to put his slaves for punishment, and roll them down a very long and steep hill. I have heard from several slaves, though I had no means of ascertaining the truth of the statement, that in this way he killed six or seven of his slaves. This plan was first adopted by a Mr. Perry, who lived on the Catarba River, and has since been adopted by several planters.

(12) Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831)

The next morning my mistress set about instructing me in my tasks. She taught me to do all sorts of household work; to wash and bake, pick cotton and wool, and wash floors, and cook. And she taught me (how can I ever forget it!) more things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart-whip, and the cow-skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand. And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist. She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves.

There were two little slave boys in the house, on whom she vented her bad temper in a special manner. One of these children was a mulatto, called Cyrus, who had been bought while an infant in his mother's arms; the other, Jack, was an African from the coast of Guinea, whom a sailor had given or sold to my master. Seldom a day passed without these boys receiving the most severe treatment, and often for no fault at all. Both my master and mistress seemed to think that they had a right to ill - use them at their pleasure; and very often accompanied their commands with blows, whether the children were behaving well or ill. I have seen their flesh ragged and raw with licks. They were never secure one moment from a blow, and their lives were passed in continual fear. My mistress was not contented with using the whip, but often pinched their cheeks and arms in the most cruel manner. My pity for these poor boys was soon transferred to myself; for I was licked, and flogged, and pinched by her pitiless fingers in the neck and arms, exactly as they were. To strip me naked - to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence. My mistress often robbed me too of the hours that belong to sleep. She used to sit up very late, frequently even until morning; and I had then to stand at a bench and wash during the greater part of the night, or pick wool and cotton; and often I have dropped down overcome by sleep and fatigue, till roused from a state of stupor by the whip, and forced to start up to my tasks.

(13) W. L. Bost, aged 88 from Asheville, North Carolina, interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1937.

I remember how they kill one nigger whipping him with the bullwhip. Many the poor nigger nearly killed with the bullwhip. But this one die. He was a stubborn Negro and didn't do as much work as his massa thought he ought to. He been lashed lot before. So they take him to the whipping post, and then they strip his clothes off and then the man stand off and cut him with the whip. His back was cut all to pieces. The cuts about half inch apart. Then after they whip him they tie him down and put salt on him. Then after he lie in the sun awhile they whip him again. But when they finish with he, he was dead.

Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say. Didn't have much of that until the men from South Carolina come up here and settle and bring slaves. Then they take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them. If the missus find out she raise revolution. But she hardly find out. The white men not going to tell and the nigger women were always afraid to. So they just go on hoping that things won't be that way always.

I remember how the driver, he was the man who did most of the whipping, used to whip some of the niggers. He would tie their hands together and then put their hands down over their knees, then take a stick and stick it between they hands and knees. Then he take hold of them and beat them first on one side, then on the other.