Life for the slaves
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Date: 22 March, 2007



Suzanne Elvidge on what life was like as a slave.

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How does it begin? Crammed into a ship, not even space to turn round. And how does it end? Very occasionally, freedom and new lives, but usually loss of identity, heavy work and cruel treatment in the plantations of the New World, and an early death.


Labour was needed for the sugar plantations, and one source for this was places like the African Gold Coast and Jamaica. These people were stolen away from their homes and packed into ship’s holds that barely allowed them space to turn round or breathe, and they were given little food and water.

Some ships carried over 600 slaves. In total, 11-12 million Africans arrived in America as a result of the slave trade, but this does not include the many that died en route.

The miserable and deadly voyage across the Atlantic, known as the ‘Middle Passage’, was long, taking one to five months, dangerous and laced with disease, including amoebic dysentery, scurvy, smallpox, measles, and other diseases.


Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, summed up the loss of a slave’s identity and control over his or her own life, when he spoke in Sheffield in 1846.

“The slave has no rights… He can decide no question relative to his own actions; the slave-holder decides what he shall eat or drink, when and to whom he shall speak, when he shall work, and how long he shall work; when he shall marry, and how long the marriage shall be binding, and what shall be the cause of its dissolution — what is right and wrong, virtue or vice. The slave-holder becomes the sole disposer of the mind, soul and body of his slave, who has no rights, all of which are taken from him.”

Slave marriages had no legal protection and slave owners could separate husbands or wives, allowing them to visit one another only with permission.

Slave owners would even take slaves’ names away from them – few slave-owners would bother with learning a ‘difficult’ African name. This conferring of a so-called ‘slave name’ also reinforced both the slave-owner’s authority, and the slave’s supposed inhumanity.

Day to day survival

House slaves were generally better treated than field or plantation slaves. Plantation slaves were generally housed in poor conditions, often justified by the supposed uncivilized nature of the black people.

People would sleep on boards or dirt floors of huts crowded together so that the overseer could keep them under observation. House slaves would sleep indoors, often on the floor of the slave owner’s room or in the doorway or hallway just outside.

Plantation slaves would receive an allowance of clothing each year, and house slaves might receive cast-offs from the family, but this could in itself be a form of control.

Food was generally poor for plantation slaves, with some slave-owners deciding that meat was ‘bad’ for slaves.

Some slightly more enlightened slave owners would educate their slaves, or allow their children to attend schools, especially in the Northern states.

However, some of the Southern states passed laws making educating slaves illegal, as ignorant slaves could be more easily controlled.


Many slaves died on the plantations, and the slave owners would encourage their slaves to have children to replace those who died – women could even be advertised as ‘being of good breeding stock.’

Children of slaves belonged to their owners in the same way that their parents did. Many slave’s children seemed to have enjoyable childhoods; however, their slave owners retained the right to sell the children and could use this as a threat to the parents.

In her bookIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’, Harriet Jacobs described seeing a mother lead her seven children to the auction-block, having to watch them all sold to a slave-trader, before she herself was sold.


Slaves who disobeyed were punished, often by whipping on a bare back, sometimes resulting in the death of the slave.

This could be for disobedience, running away, or even, in the example of Elizabeth Keckly, just for having "stubborn pride". Other forms of punishment were closer to torture.

Further reading

Slave narratives
• University of North Carolina
• Spartacus Educational

• Project Gutenberg

• University of Virginia

• Library of Congress

• National Maritime Museum
• PortCities Bristol

Read other slavery articles

• Surefish articles on abolition of slavery