Negro Slavery Described by a Negro
Ashton Warner lived in the British Caribbean colony of Saint Vincent in the early 1800s. He was raised free before being re-enslaved at the age of ten. In this passage, he describes his experience laboring on a sugar plantation. Although Warner was not forced to labor in the cane fields, he describes his horror at the prospect that he might need to complete that work. And in greater detail than most other slave narratives, he describes the toll that harvesting and refining sugar took on male and female field hands. Warner’s account, as well as other narratives available through Documenting the American South, allow historians to understand slavery and commodity production through the words of enslaved people themselves.
This source is a part of the A Human History of Commodities teaching module.
The manager then put me into a boat, and took me down to the estate. It was rather late in the afternoon when we got there. I had nothing given me to do that day. It was Saturday, and I was not set to work till the Monday morning. I was very sad, and wished very much to run away. I could not bear the thought of being a slave, and I was very restless and unhappy.
On the Monday morning, John, the head cooper, took me down to the sugar works to help him; but I had no heart to work--I did nothing but think how I might run away. I was not knowing enough, however, to make my escape; and, after consulting with myself a long time, I found it would be the best plan to make myself as patient as I could. But still I was always thinking of my mother and aunt, and of Pierre Wynn, and the home I had been taken from. The estate of Cane Grove was in the middle of a deep valley, near the sea shore. Mr. Wilson's house stood upon the brow of the hill, and overlooked the whole sugar plantation. He had about three hundred slaves, and was considered one of the severest masters in the whole island.
The manager put me under the charge of John, the cooper. He was a black man, and a slave; but he was very cruel to those of his own colour who were placed under him. I had not been with him many days before he gave me a proof of this. He ordered me to go to the plantation and cut a bundle of faggots from some trees which had been lately felled. This was at noon, when the sun was at the hottest. Owing to the great heat I was a long time making up my bundle. When I brought it home, he was angry with me because I had not cut more, and said that he knew that I had been playing and idling away my time, instead of minding my work. I told him that I had worked as hard as I could, but the heat was so great that I had no strength to chop more. He seized hold of me, and, holding me fast with one hand, he took a piece of wood from the bundle, and struck me over the head again and again, till I was quite stunned with the pain, and the blood flowed from the wound. I went crying to the manager, and complained of the cooper's cruelty. He was not so harsh a man as John, and he told him that he had done wrong; for he knew that Mr. Wilson did not wish me to be treated severely. This was not from any liking he had to me above the rest of the slaves; but Mr. Wilson, having no just claim to me, was fearful that ill usage would induce me to make my escape. I did not suspect this then, but I knew it when I grew older. After John had treated me in this way, I went to live with a slave on the estate called Ben: I slept at his place, and only worked with John, in the coopers' yard, during the day.
The first time I was trusted to leave the estate, John's wife took me with her to Kingston on Sunday morning (which is the slaves' market-day) to sell some Indian corn. I carried the Indian corn to market in an open basket upon my head, just as it had been gathered in the long ears. I had, that day, a great desire to see my mother and aunt, which became stronger and stronger the nearer we drew to Kingston. As we went along, I asked the cooper's wife to let me go home and speak to my people. I was so earnest about it, and pressed her so hard, that at last she said she would let me go if I would promise to come back soon. In the market, however, I met my mother, and John's wife gave me into her charge. Oh, I was so glad to see her!--so full of joy after our long, long parting; and when I saw with her a boy of my own age, called William, who had been my play-fellow, and whom I loved as if he had been my brother, and thought I should never see again, I could contain myself no longer, but burst into tears. William was as glad to see me as I was to see him, and we went home together. I told him, as we went along, all that had happened to me since I was stolen away, and how much I disliked being a slave. I was so happy with my friends all that day that I quite forgot my promise to the cooper's wife. I went out to play with William: he took me on board the ship to which he belonged; and, when John's wife came to my aunt's to take me home with her, I was no where to be found; and she was obliged, though much against her will, to return without me. When asked by the manager what had become of me, she told him that I was lost. He was very angry with her for letting me out of her sight; and, thinking that I had taken this opportunity to run away, he ordered some of his people to go to Kingston early in the morning and bring me back. One of the slaves set off before it was light in search of me. But, as my mother and aunt had persuaded me not to run away, but to return to the estate, and be a good and dutiful lad to my master till they could obtain justice for me,--as soon as the day broke I bade them good-bye, and went back to Cane Grove. The slave who had been sent to find me missed me upon the road, and was the whole day looking for me about the town.
The next morning Mr. Wilson rode up to the cooper's shop, and asked me where I had been; and why I did not come home on the Sunday night, as I had promised? I told him that I went to see my mother, and that I did not mean to stay long away. He did not say many angry words to me; but he told me, the next time I went to Kingston, and wished to see my mother, I must ask his leave, and he would give me a paper to show that I had it. But I never had an opportunity to come to him for a pass: he went away suddenly to England, and I never saw him again.
Mr. Wilson left me to the care of Mr. Donald, his manager, and Mr. Dalzell, his attorney, who always treated me very well--though I was still held unjustly as a slave. But some time afterwards Mr. Donald was discharged from the estate, because he had not made enough of sugar; and it was reported by some person to Mr. Wilson that he was too indulgent to the slaves, and did not work them hard enough. Another manager came in his place, called Mr. John M'Fie, who was a very severe task-master, and worked the slaves much harder. Under him my condition became considerably worse. One day he sent and called me to his house, and said that, as there was not sufficient job-work for me about the homestall, I must take a hoe and join the field gang. If the sentence of death had been passed upon me, I could not have felt more stunned. I shall never forget it! I knew that if I was sent to the field it would make me destroy myself--for it is always counted by negroes who have been above it, the worst of all punishments--the lowest step of disgrace--to be placed in the field gang. It is a dreadful state of slavery. I have often seen it--I may say I have felt it, though never in my own person. God mercifully spared me that trial. I declare before Almighty God that I would far rather die than submit to it; and, when the manager threatened to send me to the field, I felt so ill and so desperate that I did not care for life. But I did not answer a word. If I had spoken my thoughts, he would have had me flogged on the spot. I turned away in silence, with the salt water in my eyes. He saw that it would not do to drive me desperate, and he soon sent after me and ordered me to another task. On another occasion, when something had offended him, Mr. M'Fie once more threatened to send me to the field; but he never went so far as actually to force me to take the hoe. Had he done so, I can scarcely tell what would have been the consequence. I think it would have been my destruction.
As I have spoken of the condition of the field negroes as being so much worse than that of the mechanics among whom I was ranked on the estate, I shall here endeavour to describe the manner in which the field gang were worked on Cane Grove estate. They were obliged to be in the field before five o'clock in the morning; and, as the negro houses were at the distance of from three to four miles from the cane pieces, they were generally obliged to rise as early as four o'clock, to be at their work in time. The driver is first in the field, and calls the slaves together by cracking the whip or blowing the conch shell. Before five o'clock the overseer calls over the roll; and if any of the slaves are so unfortunate as to be too late, even by a few minutes, which, owing to the distance, is often the case, the driver flogs them as they come in, with the cart-whip, or with a scourge of tamarind rods. When flogged with the whip, they are stripped and held down upon the ground, and exposed in the most shameful manner.
In the cultivation of the canes the slaves work in a row. Each person has a hoe, and the women are expected to do as much as the men. This work is so hard that any slave, newly put to it, in the course of a month becomes so weak that often he is totally unfit for labour. If he falls back behind the rest, the driver keeps forcing him up with the whip.
They work from five o'clock to nine, when they are allowed to sit down for half an hour in the field, and take such food as they have been able to prepare over night. But many have no food ready, and so fast till mid-day.
They go to work again directly after half an hour's respite, and labour till twelve o'clock, when they leave off for dinner. They are allowed two hours of mid-day intermission, out of crop time, and an hour and a half in crop time.
During this interval every slave must pick a bundle of grass to bring home for the cattle at night. The grass grows in tufts, often scattered over a great space of ground, and, when the season is dry, it is very scarce and withered, so that the slaves collect it slowly and with difficulty, and are often employed most of the time allowed them for mid-day rest, in seeking for it. I have frequently known them occupied the whole two hours in collecting it.
They work again in gang from two till seven o'clock. It is then dark. When they return home the overseer calls over the roll, and demands of every man and woman their bundles of grass. He weighs with his hand each bundle as it is given in, and, if it be too light, the person who presents it is either instantly laid down and flogged severely with the cart-whip, or is put into the stocks for the whole night. If the slaves bring home no grass, they are not only put into the stocks all night, but are more severely flogged the next morning. This grass-picking is a very sore grievance to the field slaves.
Warner, Ashton and S. Strickland (Susana Moodie). 1831. Negro Slavery Described by a Negro: Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, a Native of St. Vincent's. With an Appendix Containing the Testimony of Four Christian Ministers, Recently Returned from the Colonies, on the System of Slavery as It Now Exists. London: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/warner/warner.html