Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. IV. - An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. IV. - Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species 
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize, in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785, with Additions (London: J. Phillips, 1786).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
But to return to the narration. When the wretched Africans are conveyed to the plantations, they are considered as beasts of labour, and are put to their respective work. Having led, in their own country, a life of indolence and ease, where the earth brings forth spontaneously the comforts of life, and spares frequently the toil and trouble of cultivation, they can hardly be expected to endure the drudgeries of servitude. Calculations are accordingly made upon their lives. It is conjectured, that if three in four survive what is called the seasoning, the bargain is highly favourable. This seasoning is said to expire, when the two first years of their servitude are completed: It is the time which an African must take to be so accustomed to the colony, as to be able to endure the common labour of a plantation, and to be put into the gang. At the end of this period the calculations become verified, *twenty thousand of those, who are annually imported, dying before the seasoning is over. This is surely an horrid and awful consideration: and thus does it appear, (and let it be remembered, that it is the lowest calculation that has been ever made upon the subject) that out of every annual supply that is shipped from the coast of Africa, ‡forty thousand lives are regularly expended, even before it can be said, that there is really any additional stock for the colonies.
When the seasoning is over, and the survivors are thus enabled to endure the usual task of slaves, they are considered as real and substantial supplies. * From this period therefore we shall describe their situation.
They are summoned at five in the morning to begin their work. This work may be divided into two kinds, the culture of the fields, and the collection of grass for cattle. The last is the most laborious and intolerable employment; as the grass can only be collected blade by blade, and is to be fetched frequently twice a day at a considerable distance from the plantation. In these two occupations they are jointly taken up, with no other intermission than that of taking their subsistence twice, till nine at night. They then separate for their respective huts, when they gather sticks, prepare their supper, and attend their families. This employs them till midnight, when they go to rest. Such is their daily way of life for rather more than half the year. They are sixteen hours, including two intervals at meals, in the service of their masters: they are employed three afterwards in their own necessary concerns; five only remain for sleep, and their day is finished.
During the remaining portion of the year, or the time of crop, the nature, as well as the time of their employment, is considerably changed. The whole gang is generally divided into two or three bodies. One of these, besides the ordinary labour of the day, is kept in turn at the mills, that are constantly going, during the whole of the night. This is a dreadful encroachment upon their time of rest, which was before too short to permit them perfectly to refresh their wearied limbs, and actually reduces their sleep, as long as this season lasts, to about three hours and an half a night, upon a moderate * computation. Those who can keep their eyes open during their nightly labour, and are willing to resist the drowsiness that is continually coming upon them, are presently worn out; while some of those, who are overcome, and who feed the mill between asleep and awake, suffer, for thus obeying the calls of nature, by the † loss of a limb. In this manner they go on, with little or no respite from their work, till the crop season is over, when the year (from the time of our first description) is completed.
* To support a life of such unparalleled drudgery, we should at least expect to find, that they were comfortably clothed, and plentifully fed. But sad reverse! they have scarcely a covering to defend themselves against the inclemency of the night. Their provisions are frequently bad, and are always dealt out to them with such a sparing hand, that the means of a bare livelihood are not placed within the reach of four out of five of these unhappy people. It is a fact, that many of the disorders of slaves are contracted from eating the vegetables, which their little spots produce, before they are sufficiently ripe: a clear indication, that the calls of hunger are frequently so pressing, as not to suffer them to wait, till they can really enjoy them.
This situation, of a want of the common necessaries of life, added to that of hard and continual labour, must be sufficiently painful of itself. How then must the pain be sharpened, if it be accompanied with severity! if an unfortunate slave does not come into the field exactly at the appointed time, if, drooping with sickness or fatigue, he appears to work unwillingly, or if the bundle of grass that he has been collecting, appears too small in the eye of the overseer, he is equally sure of experiencing the whip. This instrument erases the skin, and cuts out small portions of the flesh at almost every stroke; and is so frequently applied, that the smack of it is all day long in the ears of those, who are in the vicinity of the plantations. This severity of masters, or managers, to their slaves, which is considered only as common discipline, is attended with bad effects. It enables them to behold instances of cruelty without commiseration, and to be guilty of them without remorse. Hence those many acts of deliberate mutilation, that have taken place on the slightest occasions: hence those many acts of inferiour, though shocking, barbarity, that have taken place without any occasion at all: * the very slitting of ears has been considered as an operation, so perfectly devoid of pain, as to have been performed for no other reason than that for which a brand is set upon cattle, as a mark of property.
But this is not the only effect, which this severity produces: for while it hardens their hearts, and makes them insensible of the misery of their fellow-creatures, it begets a turn for wanton cruelty. As a proof of this, we shall mention one, among the many instances that occur, where ingenuity has been exerted in contriving modes of torture. “An iron coffin, with holes in it, was kept by a certain colonist, as an auxiliary to the lash. In this the poor victim of the master’s resentment was inclosed, and placed sufficiently near a fire, to occasion extreme pain, and consequently shrieks and groans, until the revenge of the master was satiated, without any other inconvenience on his part, than a temporary suspension of the slave’s labour. Had he been flogged to death, or his limbs mutilated, the interest of the brutal tyrant would have suffered a more irreparable loss.
“In mentioning this instance, we do not mean to insinuate, that it is common. We know that it was reprobated by many. All that we would infer from it is, that where men are habituated to a system of severity, they become wantonly cruel, and that the mere toleration of such an instrument of torture, in any country, is a clear indication, that this wretched class of men do not there enjoy the protection of any laws, that may be pretended to have been enacted in their favour.”
Such then is the general situation of the unfortunate Africans. They are beaten and tortured at discretion. They are badly clothed. They are miserably fed. Their drudgery is intense and incessant, and their rest short. For scarcely are their heads reclined, scarcely have their bodies a respite from the labour of the day, or the cruel hand of the overseer, but they are summoned to renew their sorrows. In this manner they go on from year to year, in a state of the lowest degradation, without a single law to protect them, without the possibility of redress, without a hope that their situation will be changed, unless death should terminate the scene.
Having described the general situation of these unfortunate people, we shall now take notice of the common consequences that are found to attend it, and relate them separately, as they result either from long and painful labour, a want of the common necessaries of life, or continual severity.
Oppressed by a daily task of such immoderate labour as human nature is utterly unable to perform, many of them run away from their masters. They fly to the recesses of the mountains, where they choose rather to live upon any thing that the soil affords them, nay, the very soil itself, than return to that happy situation, which is represented by the receivers, as the condition of a slave.
It sometimes happens, that the manager of a mountain plantation, falls in with one of these; he immediately seizes him, and threatens to carry him to his former master, unless he will consent to live on the mountain and cultivate his ground. When his plantation is put in order, he carries the delinquent home, abandons him to all the suggestions of despotick rage, and accepts a reward for his honesty. The unhappy wretch is chained, scourged, tortured; and all this, because he obeyed the dictates of nature, and wanted to be free. And who is there, that would not have done the same thing, in the same situation? Who is there, that has once known the charms of liberty, that would not fly from despotism? And yet, by the impious laws of the receivers, the * absence of six months from the lash of tyranny is—death.
But this law is even mild, when compared with another against the same offence, which was in force sometime ago, and which we fear is even now in force, in some of those colonies which this account of the treatment comprehends. “Advertisements have frequently appeared there, offering a reward for the apprehending of fugitive slaves either alive or dead. The following instance was given us by a person of unquestionable veracity, under whose own observation it fell. As he was travelling in one of the colonies alluded to, he observed some people in pursuit of a poor wretch, who was seeking in the wilderness an asylum from his labours. He heard the discharge of a gun, and soon afterwards stopping at an house for refreshment, the head of the fugitive, still reeking with blood, was brought in and laid upon a table with exultation. The production of such a trophy was the proof required by law to entitle the heroes to their reward.” Now reader determine if you can, who were the most execrable; the rulers of the state in authorizing murder, or the people in being bribed to commit it.
This is one of the common consequences of that immoderate share of labour, which is imposed upon them; nor is that, which is the result of a scanty allowance of food, less to be lamented. The wretched African is often so deeply pierced by the excruciating fangs of hunger, as almost to be driven to despair. What is he to do in such a trying situation? Let him apply to the receivers. Alas! the majesty of receivership is too sacred for the appeal, and the intrusion would be fatal. Thus attacked on the one hand, and shut out from every possibility of relief on the other, he has only the choice of being starved, or of relieving his necessities by taking a small portion of the fruits of his own labour. Horrid crime! to be found eating the cane, which probably his own hands have planted, and to be eating it, because his necessities were pressing! This crime however is of such a magnitude, as always to be accompanied with the whip; and so unmercifully has it been applied on such an occasion, as to have been the cause, in wet weather, of the delinquent’s death. But the smart of the whip has not been the only pain that the wretched Africans have experienced. Any thing that passion could seize, and convert into an instrument of punishment, has been used; and, horrid to relate! the very knife has not been overlooked in the fit of phrenzy. Ears have been slit, eyes have been beaten out, and bones have been broken; and so frequently has this been the case, that it has been a matter of constant lamentation with disinterested people, who out of curiosity have attended the * markets to which these unhappy people weekly resort, that they have not been able to turn their eyes on any group of them whatever, but they have beheld these inhuman marks of passion, despotism, and caprice.
But these instances of barbarity have not been able to deter them from similar proceedings. And indeed, how can it be expected that they should? They have still the same appetite to be satisfied as before, and to drive them to desperation. They creep out clandestinely by night, and go in search of food into their master’s, or some neighbouring plantation. But here they are almost equally sure of suffering. The watchman, who will be punished himself, if he neglects his duty, frequently seizes them in the fact. No excuse or intreaty will avail; he must punish them for an example, and he must punish them, not with a stick, nor with a whip, but with a cutlass. Thus it happens, that these unhappy slaves, if they are taken, are either sent away mangled in a barbarous manner, or are killed upon the spot.
We may now mention the consequences of the severity. The wretched Africans, daily subjected to the lash, and unmercifully whipt and beaten on every trifling occasion, have been found to resist their opposers. Unpardonable crime! that they should have the feelings of nature! that their breasts should glow with resentment on an injury! that they should be so far overcome, as to resist those, whom they are under no obligations to obey, and whose only title to their services consists in a violation of the rights of men! What has been the consequence?—But here let us spare the feelings of the reader, (we wish we could spare our own) and let us only say, without a recital of the cruelty, that they have been murdered at the discretion of their masters. For let the reader observe, that the life of an African is only valued at a price, that would scarcely purchase an horse; that the master has a power of murdering his slave, if he pays but a trifling fine; and that the murder must be attended with uncommon circumstances of horrour, if it even produces an inquiry.
Immortal Alfred! father of our invaluable constitution! parent of the civil blessings we enjoy! how ought thy laws to excite our love and veneration, who hast forbidden us, thy posterity, to tremble at the frown of tyrants! how ought they to perpetuate thy name, as venerable, to the remotest ages, who has secured, even to the meanest servant, a fair and impartial trial! How much does nature approve thy laws, as consistent with her own feelings, while she absolutely turns pale, trembles, and recoils, at the institutions of these receivers! Execrable men! you do not murder the horse, on which you only ride; you do not mutilate the cow, which only affords you her milk; you do not torture the dog, which is but a partial servant of your pleasures: but these unfortunate men, from whom you derive your very pleasures and your fortunes, you torture, mutilate, murder at discretion! Sleep then you receivers, if you can, while you scarcely allow these unfortunate people to rest at all! feast if you can, and indulge your genius, while you daily apply to these unfortunate people the stings of severity and hunger! exult in riches, at at which even avarice ought to shudder, and which humanity must detest!
[* ]One third of the whole number imported, is often computed to be lost in the seasoning, which, in round numbers, will be 27000. The loss in the seasoning depends, in a great measure, on two circumstances, viz. on the number of what are called refuse slaves that are imported, and on the quantity of new land in the colony. In the French windward islands of Martinico, and Guadaloupe, which are cleared and highly cultivated, and in our old small islands, one fourth, including refuse slaves, is considered as a general proportion. But in St. Domingo, where there is a great deal of new land annually taken into culture, and in other colonies in the same situation, the general proportion, including refuse slaves, is found to be one third. This therefore is a lower estimate than the former, and reduces the number to about 23000. We may observe, that this is the common estimate, but we have reduced it to 20000 to make it free from all objection.
[‡ ]Including the number that perish on the voyage, and in the seasoning. It is generally thought that not half the number purchased can be considered as an additional stock, and of course that 50,000 are consumed within the first two years from their embarkation.
[* ]That part of the account, that has been hitherto given, extends to all the Europeans and their colonists, who are concerned in this horrid practice. But we are sorry that we must now make a distinction, and confine the remaining part of it to the colonists of the British West India islands, and to those of the southern provinces of North America. As the employment of slaves is different in the two parts of the world last mentioned, we shall content ourselves with describing it, as it exists in one of them, and we shall afterwards annex such treatment and such consequences as are applicable to both. We have only to add, that the reader must not consider our account as universally, but only generally, true.
[* ]This computation is made on a supposition, that the gang is divided into three bodies; we call it therefore moderate, because the gang is frequently divided into two bodies, which must therefore set up alternately every other night.
[† ]An hand or arm being frequently ground off.
[* ]The reader will scarcely believe it, but it is a fact, that a slave’s annual allowance from his master, for provisions, clothing, medicines when sick, &c. is limited, upon an average, to thirty shillings.
[* ]“A boy having received six slaves as a present from his father, immediately slit their ears, and for the following reason, that as his father was a whimsical man, he might claim them again, unless they were marked.” We do not mention this instance as a confirmation of the passage to which it is annexed, but only to shew, how cautious we ought to be in giving credit to what may be advanced in any work written in defence of slavery, by any native of the colonies: for being trained up to scenes of cruelty from his cradle, he may, consistently with his own feelings, represent that treatment as mild, at which we, who have never been used to see them, should absolutely shudder.
[* ]In this case he is considered as a criminal against the state. The marshal, an officer answering to our sheriff, superintends his execution, and the master receives the value of the slave from the publick treasury. We may observe here, that in all cases where the delinquent is a criminal of the state, he is executed, and his value is received in the same manner. He is tried and condemned by two or three justices of the peace, and without any intervention of a jury.
[* ]Particularly in Jamaica. These observations were made by disinterested people, who were there for three or four years during the late war.