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An interesting question

Like if you’re a cotton-picking slave, how much better off would you be if you ran away? Slaves didn’t earn any money, but you got accommodation and food. How much did free cotton-picking men earn, and how much was left after accommodation and food? I’m going to suggest they weren’t really any better off.

Bloke on M4

Pellagra was common among Southern whites. Not so much among slaves.

Back then it was considered entirely normal for 80% of working wages to be spent upon food and rent. The rural poor would do worse than that.

Finally, this is a fascinating collection. There’s a free book of transcripts around somewhere. One of the consistent themes is how physical lifestyles (not including, obviously, the benefit of being free) significantly declined with the end of slavery among ex-slaves.

One really, really, important thing to grasp, cotton slavery was very different in its physical conditions than sugar slavery. The standard calculation in sugar was to have men only, or nearly so, and to work to death in an average of 7 years. No, really, kill through labour. Cotton? Children were valuable for the crop from a young age. Therefore marriage, children and so also diets sufficient to allow such were not just commonplace but actively encouraged. Echoes of this can still be seen in marriage patterns.

That “selling downriver” thing which is a feature of so many nightmares in the stories? About being sold off a cotton plantation into a sugar one (near all of which were in Louisiana around the Mississippi Delta) according to some interpreters.

The entire system was vile, of course, but some parts of it more vile than others.

6 thoughts on “An interesting question”

  1. Which Mississippi delta? The one where the river meets the sea or the far inland one where The Blues were a big deal?

    (I imagine you mean the first.)

  2. Long ago, at university, I studied minority groups in economic history classes. Including slavery in the US.
    Our required reading was the defence of slavery published post-Civil War – the Ulrich Phillips analysis.
    Don’t remember much but one point was that slaves had rudimentary medical care from the plantation. They were assets to be looked after.
    Free workers in the north, not so much. They were just “hands” that could be replaced by the latest shipment of immigrants.
    Gave me a frisson of unease . . . .

  3. “Poor white trash” was, and still is, a thing in the South – frequently referenced in Gone with the Wind

  4. Eighteenth-century slavery was mostly sugar slavery in Brazil and on the Caribbean islands (known, then, as “the sugar islands”, as Indonesia was “the spice islands”). Ending the slave trade reduced this massively, because they could no longer replace the people they worked to death. This is why emancipation on the British islands in the 1830s and on the French, Dutch and Danish colonies in 1848 was relatively uncontroversial; slavery was no longer wildly profitable without the slave trade.

    Nineteenth-century slavery was, above all, cotton slavery in the antebellum South. Cotton had been incredibly inefficient to grow until the invention of the cotton gin (patented in 1794, though there seem to have been some around before that). The result was an explosive growth of both cotton and slavery in the South. Most slaves in the South had been working on tobacco plantations prior to the invention.

    As for slaves being sold “downriver”, they were going to both sugar and indigo plantations (indigo was not as bad as sugar, but certainly far worse than cotton). There is a similar expression, where slaves were “sold South”, as the Northern states all did emancipation gradually, giving the slave-owners time to sell off their slaves into states that still had slavery before they would be automatically freed. The ending of slavery in the North freed very few slaves: only NY, NJ and PA had any significant free black population in the antebellum. Emancipation in the North took until well into the 1830s; there were actually six slaves left in New Jersey when the Civil War started, because NJ’s emancipation required disabled and elderly slaves to remain as slaves and required their owners to support them – they were in the 1860s equivalent of a nursing home. The New England states all freed or sold South their few slaves shortly after independence; the three Mid-Atlantic states of MY, NJ and PA took much longer to pass emancipation laws and those were much more gradual than the New Englanders. The Old Northwest (what is now the Midwest) never had slavery or, indeed, any black people in the first place.

    While none of the “border states” (MD, DE, KY, MO) actually abolished slavery before the Civil War, it was declining in all of them and many slaves were being sold South. Delaware was a rare slave state that had lots of free blacks, and the only one where there were any real legislative attempts to become a free state before the war. In the other three, there were still lots of slaves but the numbers were in absolute decline as slaves were so much more profitable in the Deep South.

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