Slaves Selling in the Deep South
You read that right. Not a typo. And this is even more important than you might think.
Sarah’s Story: The Long Walk to Savannah
Let’s call her “Sarah”.
Early in the late summer dawn, Sarah loads the still-warm newly-slaughtered chicken in her small basket, which she will carry in the crook of her elbow, and the sweet potatoes in the large shallow basket her brother Robert made for her. After placing a folded cloth on her scalp for comfort, she lifts the big basket of produce onto her head. Carefully, she picks up her small handbasket, and places it on her left arm. She will now begin the ten-mile walk to the city, as she always does on Sundays. Usually, she starts out with Ruth, her friend, cousin, and neighbor, but, this weekend, Ruth is sick. The chicken is hers, and she was grateful last night when Sarah offered to slaughter and sell it for her.
Sarah won’t travel along the dusty, sandy Georgia roads alone. She will meet up with others along the way. Some travelers go to Savannah by wagon, and they might offer her a lift. Otherwise, she will walk, chatting with her companions along the way.
Some of Sarah’s fellow travelers wear official badges or handwritten tickets affixed to their clothing, signaling that they have permission to trade in Savannah. She knows that a few of those tickets will be forged, written out by poor whites in exchange for goods, or by enslaved people who have learned to read and write, despite the law and their circumstances.
Sarah has no badge or ticket, but experience has taught her that those who might care about this don’t much care, or at least, don’t care enough to enforce the law. And the people she trades with are more interested in getting the best price they can than in obeying the rules. She probably won’t run into problems. She has occasionally heard of people getting arrested, but she has never seen it happen herself.
She has already walked ten miles when an old man stops and offers her the last space on his little horse-drawn cart. This will save not only her feet, but also her time, and with a fresh chicken to sell, she needs to find a buyer quickly. The other walkers tease her, a little enviously, as she gets on board.
Her fellow passenger, to whom she nods shyly, is probably off to find whatever work he can in Savannah. Or maybe he’s headed for the port, hoping to talk his way onto a ship. But he doesn’t say much, and she doesn’t ask.
Sarah tries first to sell her goods in a little grocery on Bay Street, where the white shopkeeper often trades with her, paying her the lowest price she will agree to. He knows she’s not licensed to trade, and he’s risking a hefty fine for buying from her, although he, too, knows the law is seldom enforced. There’s no real incentive: The slaves make money, which they spend in white businesses, and they help keep Savannah’s retail economy ticking over. Slaveowners don’t mind their slaves trading the goods they produce on their free time, Sundays and evenings, but the price for a badge is very steep, so they’re not inclined to pay for one. And enforcing the law might end up embarrassing some wealthy and powerful people.
The advantage for Sarah in dealing with this grocer? She usually trades for items he stocks, and she gets a better deal than if the bargain is made in cash. But this morning, he curtly shakes his head when she shows him the contents of her baskets.
Still, Sarah’s eyes sweep over the goods he has on display. She asks for his price on the molasses he has on display. It’s a bargain, and she makes a mental note of his reply. “Ship just came in,” he explains. “Best you buy some while it’s cheap.”
First, though, Sarah needs to sell her produce, and make money. So, still carrying her large basket on her head, she walks to the open-air market, and makes a beeline for the old African woman who is another of her regular trading partners. If this fails, she will next try to sell her goods herself, down a side street to avoid awkward questions about her lack of a market badge.
The old woman casts a skeptical eye over Sarah’s produce. She carefully handles and examines the chicken, and then she buys it at the usual price. Sarah will have a good report for her sick friend. However, the trader drives a hard bargain on Sarah’s sweet potatoes, because she already has plenty to sell. She only agrees to buy them as a favor to Sarah, and to encourage the trading relationship to continue. They finally agree that Sarah will receive a very small slab of bacon in return for the contents of her basket.
Sarah now has bacon and cash to take home, plus she has made enough money to return to the grocery for her molasses. She recognizes the clay jar into which the shopkeeper pours the sticky, dark syrup, and not only because she has bought from him before: During their free time on Sundays and evenings, men on her plantation make these cheap jars to sell to Savannah’s shopkeepers.
Living on a plantation where her only normal food allowance from her owner is a skimpy and dreary ration of a peck (two dry gallons) of corn each week, Sarah needs to supplement the family’s meagre food supply. With the help of her family, including even the smallest of the children, she grows enough vegetables for them all, plus a surplus to sell. Her husband also has a sideline: He makes fine brooms, and he will come with her to Savannah next week, to hawk his wares. Producing and selling is exhausting work, and it’s all done on top of working six days a week in their owner’s rice fields: There’s no difference in the amount of work that Sarah has to do, it’s the same as for her husband, and it always takes her longer, but if he gets done first, he often helps her. Their owner doesn't care what they do on Sundays, so long as they're making him as much money as possible the rest of the week. If they use their free time to supplement their diet? That saves him money.
Now Sarah can bring home molasses, to add a little sweetness to the daily corn mush. Before she returns home, she will enjoy her time looking at the brightly colored wares on sale in the market, and inhale the fresh smells of vegetables, fish, and meat in the early morning. Perhaps she will treat herself to a little cake. Or buy a little rum. Or she will simply plan how to spend money during future visits.
There was no “Sarah”. But there were many, many Sarahs in Savannah, Georgia, between 1750 and 1860. I bundled them into this one composite character because while we know they existed, and while we know they did all these things and more, we don’t know much about them as individuals. Enslaved people in the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina rarely left records, and rarely had their names recorded. But there’s overwhelming evidence about them all the same.
Going Beyond “Slavery Bad, End of.”
In one way, slavery is simple to understand: It’s evil. One person having total power over other people and exploiting them is never, ever a good thing. A lot of white people like to fixate on whether a slaveowner was kind or cruel, especially when we're talking slaveowners from whom they might be descended. Talk about missing the point completely, that the whole system cruelly exploited millions for the greed of a few. Oh, and I'll get to the cruel/kind thing in a future post…or three. It drives me nuts.
Meanwhile, why is it that public discussion of slavery is always about the activity of slaveowners, while enslaved people, when they’re thought of at all, are thought of as silent, passive victims?
Look, if you are curious to know how, exactly, slavery has played out in the past, more than you got in school and college, and I hope you will, start with this: It’s huuuuuge. Most folks have absolutely no idea how complicated this subject of slavery is.
I mean, are we talking about slavery in ancient Rome, which wasn’t based on a concept of “race”, and where slaves could end up free and even rich? Are we talking about slavery today, when, once again, it’s not race-based, and there are more enslaved people than ever before? Or are we talking about race-based slavery as it was in the US before the Revolutionary War? Or before the Civil War? In Virginia or Georgia? Because these things all make a difference. Slavery is always bad, but it is also different, over time and place.
The fact that we think slavery was only in the U.S., and only based on race, is a big problem: Ask the poor middle school teachers in Sun Prairie, WI who got fired because parents and administrators (and even a professor, shamefully) didn’t get this. I wrote about last year’s brouhaha before the firings, in the forlorn hope of helping to prevent hasty judgments. You can read what I had to say here.
Today at Non-Boring History, we’re going to start to have a better grasp of how big the history of slavery is by, as usual, going small and going as deep as I dare without exhausting you. We are going to chat about how people dealt with life under race-based slavery in the US, in one small area of Georgia and South Carolina, in the coastal area known as the Lowcountry, in a period that lasted just over a century, the time from 1750-1860, when American slavery peaked. I will be vague about dates, you will be relieved to know.
Introducing Agency! A Fun Word to Impress Your Friends!
I’m going to let you in on a secret: Historians who write about slavery do not start our professional meetings by lecturing each other on how awful and terrible slavery was. While we impress upon students the utter cruelty of slavery, we seldom perform loudly to make absolutely sure that our colleagues understand that we, personally, are against slavery.
Historians who deal with slavery, who fly in from around the country for just a couple of days’ discussions at professional conferences, don’t have time to sit around listening to each other make performative and defensive statements about the bleeding obvious.
We’re focused on discussing in detail how slavery worked on the ground, how enslaved people coped, and, better, how they negotiated, and even shaped the conditions in which they lived.
We often talk about how, to use a rare bit of jargon (stick with me here!) slaves exercised agency, meaning how they played the hand they had been dealt, in many, many ways.
But in teaching and in presenting to the public, historians are always struggling against non-historians’ tendency to want to reduce everything to simple explanations and respectful rituals: Slavery bad, slaves victims, wail, gnash teeth, light candle, repeat.
Historians. Don’t. Do. That. Instead, when we talk to students and the public, we go on and on and on, rushing to try to get people to understand before they lose interest, close their minds, or decide to shoot the messenger (us). That’s why good historians don’t get invited to parties. Because history is not simple. It’s never simple. It’s about people, and that makes it overwhelmingly complicated. And we only have so much time, and there are only so many of us, and there are even fewer of us that the public will listen to. And you won’t listen for long.
That’s life, but it’s also a great pity.
I want to explain why.
Slaves in the Family: Time to Rethink
The first time I heard of Black parents upset about the teaching of slavery, I was saddened to realize that some folks were embarrassed to be descended from slaves. Yes, I know and respect that Black parents don't want their kids’ history classes to only talk about Black people when slavery and civil rights roll around (I have a track record to point to here, e.g. my four novels avoiding this trap). I fully embrace giving Black kids, indeed all kids, a diverse range of role models, and plenty of books in which African-Americans are not presented as stereotypes.
But this historian is dismayed and very concerned that anyone would feel ashamed of the slaves and sharecroppers in their family tree.
To remind you, I'm a Brit. My first exposure to American history was watching Roots on TV at age 12. People who struggled against slavery and Jim Crow, have been among my heroes ever since I watched breathlessly as Kunta Kinte (played by a young LeVar Burton) tried so hard to shake off the chains that would bind him and his descendants.
As a historian, my goal all along has been to understand ordinary people as people, as individuals and communities, and how they play the hands they're dealt.
As a person, I also bring a very different perspective. When I tackled my own inbred family history in Scotland, I was at least as proud of all the factory workers and dirt-poor landless farmworkers and pregnant unmarried maids and boys killed in the trenches of World War I, as I was of the great-grandfather who was sent to a boarding school for poor orphans, and clawed his way to a partnership in a factory.
Actually, I have awkward questions about him, but we’ll save that for another day.
Here’s the problem we seldom discuss, the reason why Americans are so often reluctant to think about their humble ancestry, free or slave: In the modern US, it often feels like the only people who count are “winners”, “successful people”, celebrities, billionaires, TV preachers, influencers, the people who make tons of money, regardless of how they do that, and how utterly awful they are as human beings. When I told a former student that her preacher was a charlatan (he is), she said, “Why would I follow a poor loser?” I almost demanded she hand me her college diploma so I could set fire to it.
Recently, more and more people in the US and the UK have started asking awkward questions about some of the “successful” people of the past. Like, where did they get all that money from, exactly? In a week when a woman is on trial for allegedly lying her way to riches by offering fake blood tests, and at a time when another billionaire family who have given gazillions to cultural institutions are under fire for getting rich by peddling addictive drugs to millions, it's not a bad question to ponder.
When we grapple with the historical sins of long-dead slaveowners (which we do at Non-Boring History: See How to Be Posh) that still doesn’t satisfactorily address the awkwardness that people might feel about being descended from slaves, or about talking about slavery.
So, listen up, my non-historian friends:
Yes, enslaved people were victims. BUT—shouting this from the rooftops now— THEY WERE ALWAYS STRUGGLING NOT TO BE!
Agency in slavery matters to you, me, us, right here, right now, in 2021. It matters because it leads us to the truth that enslaved people were real, flesh and blood people. It matters because people who learn even some of the details about agency in slavery gain genuine respect for enslaved people, not just embarrassed pity, and in the process, gain respect for people around us now, and for ourselves. This is a win that requires effort, and it's worth every minute we spend because, it is a BIG win. Non-Boring History is the quickest version of real, slow learning that I can produce. Thank you for reading, talking, and telling others, for helping me make all this work count. Speaking of telling others . . .
Let’s talk now about a very small part of the extraordinary life of a man you never heard of. Don’t worry, you don’t have to add his name to a long list to be memorized. I don’t do that stuff. Just sit back, relax, and let me tell you a fun story (yes, I know how that sounds, but you will see what I mean . . . )
Charles Ball: Professional Fisherman, Savvy Entrepreneur, and (eventually ex-) Slave
Charles Ball waits in the dark, only the moon reflecting off the river providing any light. He is waiting for a business partner, and the business they’re conducting is best done under cover of night. The man he’s waiting for is white and free. Ball himself is Black, and a slave. The transaction they’re about to make isn’t, properly speaking, supposed to happen. But it happens anyway. Because this is real life under slavery.
See how I described Charles Ball as an entrepreneur in the subheading above? That can have a negative connotation for some readers, so let me be clear: I’m not writing about grifters. Maybe they could have been, given half a chance, because grifting was a big part of 19th century culture, as it is today (P.T. Barnum, etc). But they weren't. They were people who had been dealt a very bad hand in life, but who were playing it for everything they were worth, in order to survive, and sometimes, even, to live.
Taking Charge at The Fishery
One day, the master orders that Charles Ball and three other enslaved men be removed from the gang headed for the cotton fields.
Instead, the overseer tells them, they will build him a fishery by the riverside.
What does that mean, a “fishery”? It’s a place where enslaved men can catch fish in big quantities, which will then be sold for the slaveowner’s profits.
Here’s the deal. A river runs alongside the plantation’s fields for a whole mile. But before commercial fishing can begin, an area of the river next to the bank will need to be dredged. That’s because they will be using weighted long nets called seines. Seines were basically an early form of trawling, catching all sorts of fish, and lots of them. You can’t just string them across the river, because it would interfere with the boat traffic. So the guys have to first clear dead trees and branches from the water near the bank, the cluttered area of the river where the boats don’t travel. Once that’s done, they can hop in boats, and lay their seine nets for the fish.
Even before Charles Ball and his colleagues get started on the dredging, their master’s son turns up. He has brought two flat-bottomed fishing boats he has purchased for their use.
But Ball is not impressed: He points out that the boats are leaky and therefore useless. It’s hard for the master’s son to argue with the evidence right in front of him.
Ball proposes instead that he and the other enslaved guys take care of the problem: They will build two canoes from pine trees in the woods around them. This is something that many enslaved men learned in West Africa, and it’s a skill they also taught to their sons.
Within a week, the canoes are ready.
Charles Ball now expects his initiative, fishing knowledge, and supervision of the canoe project to be rewarded: He is confident he will be appointed head of the fishery, and that he will quietly take some fish as a commission as soon as he and all the fishermen get to work.
But no. A white stranger shows up, and announces that he’s in charge of the new fishery.
This new overseer, a poor man who cannot afford to buy slaves, lives several miles away, in woods with poor soil, and he barely scrapes a living for himself and his family by making turpentine from the plentiful pines, and fishing with hooks and small nets. For the job of fishery overseer, he will not be paid in cash. Instead, he has been offered a 10% commission, payable in fish, which he can then sell.
This poor white man supervises the enslaved men’s miserable work, while they stand in the river up to their shoulders in the water, clearing out tree trunks, branches, and brush, sometimes having to duck underwater to pull out submerged logs. But within a week, they have created an area in which they can drop their seine nets, and start fishing.
This is when the master’s and overseer’s profits will begin.
For the next few days, the overseer works Ball and the other slaves hard, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, without even the customary Sunday off, because, as Ball remarks, days off never apply to fishermen.
At first, they only catch common river fish, like pike and perch, but soon they are pulling in plump shad, which are the real money-spinners. Because shad mostly appear at night, the enslaved fishermen sleep during the day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is not enough sleep, especially because they have to eat during that time, too. Even so, if the overseer spots a school of fish during the daytime, he rousts the men awake with a hickory stick. He wants his 10% to be as big as possible.
He does make some concessions. He sees no harm in allowing the slaves to eat fish they catch, to supplement their monotonous starchy rations from the master of sweet potatoes and corn bread, prepared by the women. But they aren’t allowed shad: It’s the most valuable dish they catch.
Having no pork or other fat with which to fry, the guys have to roast their catch in the fire. Charles Ball later wrote that they could have eaten shad very well in this way, since it’s an oily fish, and it bastes itself. Because they are denied shad, the fish they roast in the fire for supper is dry and bony.
But now something changes. The overseer realizes that the enslaved men, and Ball especially, know way more about seine fishing than he does. Instead of just stamping about, waving his stick and yelling at the fishermen, he starts chatting with Charles Ball. He admits to him that he is fed up of sitting up all day and night watching the enslaved men fish.
Ball is not impressed with this man at all. Many slaveowners encouraged enslaved people to look down on poor white “trash”, to discourage them from finding common cause, and then turning on the elite. Poor whites, meanwhile, simply never would have the resources to buy good land near the coast, and, unless they knew a trade, they often lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Indeed, even if they had a trade, they increasingly competed with enslaved men who were trained as carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers and the rest. Divide and conquer proved an incredibly successful strategy for Georgia’s elite.
Here, Ball takes up the story of the fishery overseer, which I have translated into modern English:
You could have paid this guy ten thousand bucks, and he could not have kept up a twelve-hour-a-day schedule for an entire year. To him, that was too much like hard work. One evening, he took me aside and told me that I was going to be the new manager. He was sure I would keep everyone working hard, and that I didn’t need him in the picture: I could do the work as well without him as with him.
Now, these are Ball’s actual words about the overseer, from his autobiography, written in Victorian American English. Except that these probably aren’t his actual words, but a mixture of his original, and the phrasing of his white abolitionist editors:
I feel certain, that he could not have been prevailed upon to labour twelve hours each day, for a year, if in return he had been certain of receiving ten thousand dollars.
This was a degree of toil and privation to which he could not long submit; and one evening soon after dark, he called me to him and told me, that he intended to make me overseer of the fishery that night; and he had no doubt, I would keep the hands at work, and attend to the business as well without him as with him.
However we phrase it or think of it, here’s the deal: Yes, the white overseer put Charles Ball, an enslaved man, in charge of the fishery. This was such a common arrangement, there’s even a name for enslaved men who filled this role: Slave driver.
Charles in Charge
Early the next morning, after a long night of fishing, Charles Ball waits with the night’s catch. He is waiting for the overseer to roll out of bed, hurry down to the fishery, and divide the fish between the master’s share (90%) and his own (10%).
But the overseer doesn’t show up. So Ball divides the fish himself, trying to be as fair as possible, although making sure the master got plenty of the large and valuable shad.
When the overseer finally makes an appearance, he’s thrilled. He tells Ball that if he had divided it himself, he wouldn’t have done it any differently.
From this time, to the end of the fishing season, Ball wrote, we all lived well, and did not perform more work than we were able to bear. I was in no fear of being punished by the fish-master [the overseer of the fishery']; for he was now at least as much in my power, as I was in his; for if my master [the slaveowner] had known the agreement, that he had made with us, for the purpose of enabling himself to sleep all night in his cabin, he would have been deprived of his situation [he would have been fired], and [lost] all the profits of his share of the fishery.
Charles Ball is now careful to awaken the overseer early each morning, so he can supervise the division of the night’s catch, and so he is present when the slave sent to collect the fish turns up with his barrow. Otherwise, that slave might report to the master that the fishery overseer was still in bed. It was, Ball realized, in his own best interest to make sure this overseer did not get fired, because this man would leave him alone to get on with things, while a replacement might not.
Every day in summer, white traders pass the fishery in large keel boats, selling salt and bacon, among other goods, to the plantations along the river. But they never stop to trade with Ball and the other slaves. It was illegal for white men to trade with slaves, and, more to the point, it was an extremely risky activity in broad daylight.
Around dusk, a large keel boat that has been plying up and down the river all day, pulls over to moor for the night on the riverbank opposite the fishery. While the other men begin to set up the seine on the river to begin the night’s fishing, Ball hops into a small canoe, and paddles over to the keel boat. There, he asks the captain if he could trade him some shad for bacon. The captain says he will, but he will have to charge a high price, because he risks a large fine by dealing with a slave.
He then offers a hundred pounds (weight) of bacon in trade for 300 shad. This is twice the normal price of bacon, Ball reckons, but he knows he can’t negotiate. Fortunately, the fishermen are now drawing in the seine, and he sees they have a great catch, more than enough to pay the captain without the fish being missed by the overseer or the master. Immediately, the deal is completed.
This is not an equal deal, because it is one between a white man and an enslaved Black man, but it is a partnership: The Captain and Charles Ball have a shared interest in not being caught, or in the other being caught.
Of course, the consequences of getting caught would be far more severe for Ball. This is a brave act, and an important one: it has just been announced that the master will cut the ration. Because sweet potatoes are fetching a good price from boatmen trading on the river, he will sell the vegetables to boatmen rather than giving them to his slaves, and so he cuts their rations to a small quantity of corn alone.
No wonder the fishermen are so pleased with their bacon. They shove it into an old salt barrel, and bury it in a hole they dig in the floor of Charles Ball’s cabin.
Finally, the fishermen have meat, something they almost never get to eat, despite their hard work. They also have bacon fat in which they can fry their fish. But they won’t use it for frying, after all. Ball knows that, so far as the master knows, the men at the fishery are living on fish and corn bread. The smell of frying bacon would give them away.
So he tells them, regretfully, that they must boil the bacon instead. That way, it can’t be smelled from miles away by inquisitive noses. This is not his first clever idea to evade detection of the illicit meals at the fishery: The men have, from the beginning, carefully disposed of waste from the shad they eat, tossing it all into the river, to disguise the fact that they are eating the best and most expensive fish they catch.
Charles Ball’s life will not end on this Lowcountry plantation. He will eventually succeed in escaping, not only from the Deep South, but from slavery itself, landing in Pennsylvania. But for now, for today, he has gained one more small victory for himself, and the other fishermen. It is very satisfying.
William Grimes’s Gig Economy
One last story for today, the story of William Grimes, an enslaved man in early 19th century Georgia. Grimes isn’t needed to work in cotton or in his owner’s house. So he is ordered to find work in Savannah, and support himself. There’s a catch. This isn’t freedom. Grimes must pay three dollars a week to his owner, Archibald Bulloch. Oh, if you’re a Georgian? This is NOT the Archibald Bulloch after whom Bulloch County, my former place of residence, is named, but likely his son or grandson.
Bulloch doesn’t much care what Grimes does, so long as the three bucks arrives promptly each week. Whatever Grimes earns in addition, he gets to keep. He has to buy his own food and clothing, and pay his own rent, and spend whatever else he wants to spend it on.
This not-actually-freedom isn’t as easy as it might sound.
Here’s one indication of why. Decades earlier, a German minister, Pastor Martin Bolzius, chatted with enslaved people he met as he traveled from Ebenezer, GA to Charleston, SC. They told him that the amount their master demanded from them from their weekly labors, working off the plantation, was unreasonably high, and that if they didn’t meet it, they were flogged.
Grimes, looking for work in Savannah, is fortunate compared with other slaves in his position. He may not have a trade, but he has options. It is also very helpful to be a man, because men were simply more in demand as day laborers. For the first month, he works on board a ship, and is paid a dollar a day, which becomes his usual expected pay. After that, he muddles through a few days doing unspecified work, perhaps at the docks, where men are usually needed to load and unload ships. Now, however, he heads to look for employment in plantations outside the city. On the edge of Savannah, he finds work “mowing” in a plantation owned by a Mr. Houstoun, again for a dollar a day. This time his job lasted for a week.
The arrival of a big ship in Savannah next gives William Grimes a job as a “cook and steward”. The daily pay is only 75 cents, but his food is provided.
From there, he is hired by his master’s brother-in-law as a carriage driver. But this time, he only makes $20 a month.
Grimes is not getting rich: Out of his pay, he still has to feed and clothe himself. Crucially, while less supervised as a slave hiring out his own time, he is definitely not free, and is always subject to being flogged, recalled to other work, or simply sold.
So William Grimes was always on the lookout for his next gig, and always gaining experience. His life in Savannah’s gig economy was, and we should never forget this, a limited and insecure life.
William Grimes had a tiny bit of autonomy, and he made the best of it. Charles Ball, would one day write in fascinated envy of men like Grimes, men whom he met in Savannah. They “went out to work, where and with whom they pleased, received their own wages, and provided their own subsistence.” He described one as “comfortably dressed, and appeared to live well.” Given a choice, it’s hard to imagine Ball turning down the chance to move off the plantation, and to become one of these men. In the end, though, he rejected all the limited and few options that slavery offered, and freed himself. That was by far the best option, although, again, not as easy as it sounds, and not an option for everyone.
Women had fewer options than men. Running away was harder for them to do, especially when they had kids in tow. When they were sent to a city like Savannah to find work and earn their keep in jobs, they had an even narrower range of possible jobs to choose from. The obvious choice was domestic work. But it was hard to find: Urban whites were not keen to take Black strangers into their homes for a temporary gig. Free Black women who took in laundry, among the few ways they could make a living, provided stiff competition to an enslaved woman seeking to do the same. Although the evidence is sparse, it's impossible to imagine that at least some of these women sent off the plantation to work didn't turn to sex work to make money to pay their masters.
So there we have it, entwined in the story of agency among enslaved people: The horrors of slavery, the hypocrisy of slaveowners, and a bunch of facts to present to the next person you hear make some ridiculous and simple-minded contrast between “cruel” and “kind” masters.
Starting to Unpack Slavery
Please, don’t decide that what I have told you today completes the story of American slavery, and the stories of enslaved people. Americans think that textbooks are American history, and we will insist in this country on everybody “learning” “all” U.S. history via a bad abridged version. Note the quote marks. These stories will, I hope, leave you with three main points: 1) Slavery was a rotten, stressful, frightening way to live 2) Enslaved people took advantage of every avenue they could to make life bearable, and 3) There is far, far more to be known than any of us can know, and that absolutely includes me.
These stories came from the Lowcountry, the coastal region of Georgia and South Carolina. Unlike Virginia and Maryland, here were many absentee owners. They had no desire to live in mosquito-infested swamps. They often employed poor whites to supervise, and these were little supervised themselves.
Lowcountry slaveowners were willing to negotiate slavery’s conditions with enslaved people, so long as the money kept rolling in, and it did.
Trust me when I say that this system, while it offered more autonomy to Lowcountry slaves than their counterparts in rural Virginia, say, primarily benefited slaveowners. Slaveowners had no choice over Sundays off: That had been decided early in the colonial period. But they happily agreed to set aside land for gardens to be tended by enslaved people, so they didn’t have to pay to supply them with enough and varied foods. They agreed to pay enslaved people wages if they worked for the master on Sunday, so the crop was saved after a hurricane. They found it easier to agree that, instead of paying white overseers to stand over gangs of slaves with whips, they would set enslaved people routine daily tasks, like planting a half-acre with rice. When the task was completed, so long as the overseer agreed the work was done well, a person had free time, however little it might be. Typically, this was not leisure time, but spent in side enterprises, like making brooms and tending gardens for the market, in order to provide a minimal standard of living. And if task work wasn’t done well, according to the overseer? Enslaved people were brutally whipped in front of their families and friends.
Slaveowners and overseers in the Lowcountry were happy to let enslaved people get on with managing their time, people like Charles Ball and his fishermen. The task system meant less work for slaveowners. More time to sit around in the heat, sipping cold drinks. Or, in the case of some very wealthy slaveowners, opportunity to move to Philadelphia, or even London, and simply collect the checks their overseer sent.
But make no mistake: The law was on the slaveowners’ side, and it provided them with enormous power over enslaved people, giving them the threats of vicious beatings, sale away from families and communities, and even death. Nobody enslaved, however autonomous they appeared to be, was ever really free. There was exploitation, threat, force, and brutality aplenty.
But negotiating, bargaining, wending their way through this appalling reality were people, real people, enslaved people, who never stopped thinking about how to improve their lives, and the lives of their families.
That’s something of which their descendants can be very proud, and we can all applaud.
British Historians and Early Georgia
I was truly astonished to learn in the 1990s that, not only was I far from the only Brit studying early America on either side of the Atlantic, but that there was a whole bunch of historians coming out of Cambridge University who specialized in early Georgia, led by Professor Betty Wood! It was my pleasure to host the delightfully down-to-earth Betty for lunch when she came to Statesboro to speak at Georgia Southern University, and later, her student Ben Marsh, who slept on the Benotis' sofa one night during a research trip through the state. Ben now teaches at the University of Kent, and is the author of Georgia’s Frontier Women: Female Fortunes in a Southern Colony and, most recently, Unravelled Dreams: Silk and the Atlantic World, c.1500-1840 (2020). In between, he and his family hosted my son, Hoosen, Jr. for a lovely day when he visited Canterbury.
But to most non-historians, and he is going to hate me saying this, Ben Marsh is best known as the dad/lead singer/guitarist of The Marsh Family, who have achieved world fame as funny and talented performers, the Von Trapps of the Pandemic. Look them up on YouTube.
This post owes massive amounts to two academic books by Betty Wood, now retired, and her former student, Dr. Tim Lockley, of the University of Warwick, whose book also introduced me to Charles Ball, on whose autobiography I have drawn. My feeling about Nonnies reading academic history is this: If you’re completely captivated by a subject, you can wade your way through academic prose.
So without further ado, my sources. If I got things wrong, I invite Drs. Wood and Lockley to send me a nasty email.
Betty Wood, Women’s Work, Men’s Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia
Timothy James Lockley, Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia, 1750-1860
Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man (1837) Available FREE from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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