What's the Word?
The cotton gin was a device that enabled a single man with a single horse to separate roughly fifty times as much raw cotton from its seeds as had been possible beforehand. The machine, whose invention is credited to a Northerner named Eli Whitney, revolutionized southern agriculture, and brought the cotton plantation to a position of extraordinary economic importance in the South. According to Black Stars: African-American Inventors (Otha Richard Sullivan; John Wiley and Sons, 1998), Whitney was actually “improving the idea of the slaves who used a comblike device to clean cotton.”
On the March
“Ibo's Landing,” an American folk tale from the slavery era, tells of a group of Africans who refused to be delivered into bondage. After realizing that their captain has no intention of setting them free, eighteen captives declare, “No! Rather than be a slave here in America, we would rather be dead.” In some versions of the story, the captives, chained together, plunge overboard together. In others, they fly away. (See In the Time of the Drums, Jump at the Sun Books, 1999.)
Rich whites owned slaves, but the institution of slavery was deeply woven into the entire Southern economy, culture, and lifestyle. (There was, it should be noted, a small number of freedmen and never-enslaved African-Americans who became slaveholders.)
The following is a brief overview of some of the most common destinations and working environments for enslaved Africans in the South.
- Coffee, tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations. The success of these staple crops, along with that of sugar, helped to establish a plantation economy, and to make the importation of more and more slaves from Africa an economic priority in the South.
- Sugar plantations. Following the United States' purchase of the massive Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, sugar production surged and southern plantation owners purchased huge numbers of slaves to produce crushed cane for use in a variety of products, including molasses and rum.
- Cotton plantations. Many early settlers in the colonies grew cotton, and used slaves to complete the tedious work of picking, ginning (deseeding), and baling the cotton. Following by-then established tradition, field slaves worked the crops; house slaves attended to the plantation owner and his family. Thanks in large measure to the invention of the cotton gin, plantation owners found themselves in a position to produce—and sell—much more cotton than ever before, and demand for slaves skyrocketed.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the raw cotton industry, which had always been heavily dependent on the forced labor of slaves, was a mainstay of the southern economy. Anyone curious about the experience of working as a field slave in such a plantation can consult (among many such narratives) the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup (London: Sampson Low & Son, 1853):
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they oftentimes labor till the middle of the night.
Good Master, Bad Master
Apologists for the institution of slavery (of which there are, amazingly, still a few among white supremacist groups) often make the point that some white masters were far more cruel than others, and that any number of masters were regarded as benevolent by their own slaves. While this is true as far as it goes, it is also true that the power dynamic inherent in being owned by another human being makes labels like “benevolent” essentially meaningless.
Even slaves who lived and worked in the “best” situations faced the constant fear of forced separations from their families, being sold into worse conditions, or being forced to endure both fates at the same time. All that needed to happen to turn a “benevolent” relationship into a nightmare few today can conceive was for a white master to fall on hard times—or decide for some other reason that benevolence was no longer affordable.
Sold Down the River
It is worth noting here that the common idiom “to be sold down the river”—meaning to be betrayed—has its roots in America's slave holocaust.
To understand the term completely, one has to understand that living and working conditions for enslaved men and women became steadily more inhuman the further one progressed down the Mississippi River. When a slave owner threatened, overtly or otherwise, to sell a slave down the river (and words were hardly necessary to convey such a threat), the power relationship between the two parties was quite clear. The slave owner's point of view can be summed up as follows: “Keep me happy, or prepare yourself for a fresh hell each and every morning you wake up, for the rest of your life.”
This was the reality of life for the vast majority of the enslaved in the American South while slavery was a way of life in the United States.