The labor of enslaved Americans fueled the rapid growth of the national economy. Forced by the whip to work faster, better, and harder, African Americans, often malnourished and sleep-deprived, used extraordinary skill to catapult the United States into the global economy. In 1800 enslaved African Americans produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton. By 1860 they cultivated almost two billion. Sparked by higher quotas and the terror of the whip, individual productivity increased 400 percent.
To Pick a Bale of Cotton
Slaveholders demanded that enslaved workers continually increase of the amount of cotton they picked. If workers failed to meet the daily quota, they were whipped or beaten. In 1801 each worker picked an average of 28 pounds a day. By 1840 the figure was as much as 341 pounds. Cotton production grew by 361 percent between 1811 and 1860.
After the weighing, follow the whippings.
Solomon Northup, 1853
From Dawn to Dusk
Increased production had a human cost. Eager for profit, slaveholders forced enslaved people to work from dawn to dusk. Plantation bells ordered enslaved workers to the field and signaled cotton weigh-up time. Unable to leave small infants behind, mothers strapped babies to their backs or left them nearby in the field. One in four children did not survive their first year.
A Heavy Burden
By strapping bags across their shoulders, enslaved workers could pick cotton with both hands. An average sack full of cotton weighed 75 to 100 pounds and each person was required to fill three to five sacks a day. This demanded strength and dexterity.
A Quota of Violence
Slaveholders recorded the amount of cotton an enslaved person picked each day. Many enslaved workers remembered a deep sense of fear at the end of the day when the plantation bell rang out for weigh-up time. A missed quota often meant a severe whipping. If the quota was met, it was increased the next day.
Whips: Instruments of Torture
Whips were instruments of torture used to increase productivity. As the craftsmanship of this one demonstrates, they were also sources of pride for some enslavers. Lashings could be so severe that they resulted in permanent loss of mobility and sometimes brain damage.