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Painting of Enslaved People on a Cotton Plantation

Chapter 01

King Cotton

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.

Illustration of black man being whipped

Section IIA Punishing System

Enslavers used threats of physical violence to compel enslaved African Americans to increase their cotton production by 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

An albumen print mounted on board depicting formerly enslaved men, women and children picking cotton on a South Carolina plantation. The laborers are spread out in the field, many bending down to pick the cotton. The women wear checked dresses and cloth headwraps. The men wear light colored shirts and dark brimmed hats. Many wear large sacks strapped across their bodies. In the upper left corner, a man raises a large basket behind his head with both hands. In the left foreground, a small girl in a checked dress and patterned head kerchief stands next to a large basket full of cotton. A stamp on the verso reads: [GEO L. COOK, Photographer - 265 KING ST. CHARLESTON, S.C.].

Women, men, and children picking cotton in South Carolina, ca. 1875

Photograph of the Magnolia Plantation Bell

Magnolia Plantation Bell, Cane River, Louisiana

From Dawn to Dusk

Photograph of the Magnolia Plantation Bell

Magnolia Plantation Bell, Cane River, Louisiana

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.

Page of the American Anti-Slavery Almanac

Oh my child, engraving from American Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1840

Black and white photograph of enslaved persons picking cotton

Picking Cotton

A Heavy Burden

Black and white photograph of enslaved persons picking cotton

Picking Cotton

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 page from William Law's Plantation Account Book

William Law’s Plantation Account Book

A Quota of Violence

A page from William Law's Plantation Account Book

William Law’s Plantation Account Book

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.

A long, single-tailed snake whip made of coiled leather strands inside a smooth, hand-stitched leather shot bag running three quarters of the length. The fall consists of two tightly twisted strands that terminate in a hard knot. The metal knob handle is attached to the leather by two nails, allowing the whip to be coiled up for easy carrying.

Field Whip

Illustration of black man being whipped

The Lash

Whips: Instruments of Torture

A long, single-tailed snake whip made of coiled leather strands inside a smooth, hand-stitched leather shot bag running three quarters of the length. The fall consists of two tightly twisted strands that terminate in a hard knot. The metal knob handle is attached to the leather by two nails, allowing the whip to be coiled up for easy carrying.

Field Whip

Illustration of black man being whipped

The Lash

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.