There is a lot of sugar-coating in discussions these days about the realities of slavery and the experiences enslaved people had. In Hollywood movies, in casual discussions and in modern media we never really see the full extent of the suffering and torment that enslaved people had to endure.
Even in the darkest and most brutal depictions of slavery that we see today, none are truly accurate. None speak the truth of what black people had to suffer. There were many wretched methods of torture that overseers would employ to terrorise the enslaved people – causing them to be in constant agony and live a life of fear.
Here are some of the worst…
10. The Hogshead
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Moses Roper describes his experience of being enslaved. After he managed to escape slavery, published a narrative of his experience during slavery and escaping. He describes a method of torture that was used: The Hogshead.
The Hogshead refers to a barrel that would have nails punched into it so they were protruding inside the barrel. Overseers put enslaved people into the barrels which they would roll down the hillside. This would cause severe motion sickness, head trauma and of course there was always the risk that a person would be (repeatedly) impaled by the nails on the inside of the barrel.
Seemingly, overseers and white people had grown desensitised to traditional methods of torture and were now creating their own new ways to torment the people they enslaved.
9. Slave Iron Bit
Escrava Anastacia (‘Anastacia the Enslaved’) wearing the scold’s bridle
Also referred to as a gag, overseers used the slave iron bit to punish the enslaved. The gag is often associated with the scold’s bridle but the scold’s bridle is more commonly known for its popular use on women during the 17th century. There is very little documentation to suggest it was used as a method of torture or punishment for enslaved people.
The famous image of St. Escrava Anastacia (‘Anastacia the enslaved’) portrays her wearing an iron facemask – a slave iron bit. She was an Afro-Brazilian woman who supposedly possessed the power to heal with her words. In 2015, her image was notoriously appropriated for a runway “fashion” show by designer Adriana Degreas.
The slave iron bit has a flat iron attachment that goes into the mouth to hold down the tongue which means it is impossible to swallow – even saliva. The holes in the front of the mouth cover are for any bodily fluids (mainly saliva). They weren’t able to swallow. The mask also prevented enslaved people from lying down their heads which meant they couldn’t rest.
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Overseers used body mutilation for several reasons. One reason was to signify that they were someone’s property. This dehumanised them to a commodity – a machine built for the field.
French King Louis XIV introduced the Code Noir, also called the “black code”. This allowed the cropping of ears, shoulder branding, hamstringing and the cutting of tendons near the knee, as punishments for any enslaved person that had run away.
Most often, they branded the enslaved person’s body using a branding iron. They heated the iron until hot enough to severely burn someone. Then they pressed it into the skin until it left a permanent scar. Usually, an enslaved person would be branded on their shoulder, buttock, palm or cheek.
They used this method of punishment (similar to the iron collar) to show which of the enslaved people had attempted to escape. This showed which were likely to cause “trouble” for overseers.
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It made sense for the enslaved people to need good physical features, strength and range of movement. It makes even more sense for those that enslaved them and the overseers to want to protect these features. However, this was rarely the case. In many situations where enslaved people had resisted their overseers, attempted escape or even fought each other, it was very common for them to be subject to body mutilation.
If an enslaved person were ‘lucky’ they would only leave with an ear removed or their flesh cut fairly deep. Although, there were more severe forms of mutilation, such as hamstringing. They used hamstringing against enslaved people that had attempted to run. It involves the tearing or cutting of the hamstrings which made it impossible for them to run or walk properly.
They also amputated limbs – legs, arms or extremities. Overseers still commanded enslaved people to fulfil their duties on a plantation or around the house. Some also had their eyes removed. In some cases, they did this by gouging. In other cases, they beat enslaved people about the head until their eyes fell out.
At that time (and given the status of the enslaved people), they received no medical care at all. So, meant many died from blood loss, infection, shock and other complications.
Before rape (of a white woman) was punishable by death, they castrated enslaved men. Castration involves the loss of use of the testicles, usually by removal or surgical sterilisation.
Black men (and women) were seen as aggressively sexual by nature. White women were seen as pure and virginal. So, it was seen as an immeasurable act of violence when they were sexually violated or “corrupt” by black men. However, there was no common law of consent at the time. This meant that any sexual relation between a black man and white woman was seen as unnatural.
5. Death by Burning
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In any situation where the overseers felt that the actions of the enslaved were serious enough that any other form of punishment simply wouldn’t amount, the enslaved had to suffer an extremely gruesome and horrifically inhumane death. They burned the enslaved alive while bound to a stake. Many would gather to watch while they held the enslaved over a fire until flesh fell off their bones.
In August 1719, a man named Liverpoole (enslaved by Mr William Price) was burnt on the grounds of a workhouse for aiding the attempted murder of a man who enslaved others. He was named a “Negro Doctor” for creating the poison that was used in the attempt.
They used death by burning to punish the most severe crime. Law enforcement commonly employed it following the suspicion that any enslaved people were planning a revolt. During the New York Conspiracy of 1741 over 13 people were burnt at the stake.
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Lynching refers to the execution of a person by a mob without due process of law and hanging refers the act of suspending a person (or oneself) by a rope in order to execute that person. Death by hanging was the most common form of execution since the development of the United States and the British introduction of capital punishment. They became extremely popular in the south during the late 19th century (post-civil war), even though they were used during slavery.
Historians broadly agree that white people used lynchings to terrorise black people into subservience and compliance. If white people ever wanted to make the death more excruciating or violent they would dig a hook into the person’s lungs before they were hung or hang them upside down.
More recent (post-civil war) lynchings would typically involve accusations that were brought against a person who would then be arrested. They rarely thoroughly investigated or confirmed these accusations. “Lynch mobs” assembled to violently assault and hang the accused.
In many cases, the victims of lynch mobs would be subject to extreme violence and physical torture. Many were badly beaten or sometimes set on fire. This can be seen in the case of Abram Smith (19) and Thomas Shipp (18). The boys were arrested and murdered in 1930. A lynch mob violently broke into the jail where they were being held. The mob then dragged them out onto the street and beat them with bricks, crowbars and heeled shoes. When Abram Smith attempted to free himself from the noose, the crowd pulled him down stabbed him and broke both of his arms.
3. Slave Collars
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Slave collars first came into common use by overseers during the 1860s but were used by Jean Baptiste Debret to punish the enslaved in Brazil, as early as 1816. Also known as ‘punishment collars’ or ‘iron collars’, overseers used them to punish enslaved people who attempted to escape. If they were caught (most were, unfortunately) overseers forced them to wear the collar.
Many of these collars can now be found in museums, especially in the southern states of the USA. It’s documented that they were used in the upper south but they were much more commonly used in the lower south.
The collars had either bells or spikes protruding out of a metal band that would go around the neck. The collars were a form of punishment for several reasons.
The collars also showed who had attempted to run away. Therefore, overseers watched these individuals closely. They also would have experienced harsher punishments for any transgressions.
The bells signalled movement. They would make it impossible for the enslaved to escape (or go anywhere, even on the plantation) unnoticed. The spikes stopped the enslaved from moving through bushes or fences without getting trapped. It was also very difficult to lean against surfaces or lie down. They were forced to stand and couldn’t rest.
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It’s very well-known that the main method used to punish enslaved Africans was by whipping. Whipping tore the flesh from their arms, legs and backs. The enslaved received whippings more often than they received their food and no one would be exempt from whippings, just as any other punishments really. Pregnant women, mentally challenged, physically disabled, even children were all punished by whipping.
If an enslaved woman was pregnant, she may still be subject to whipping. They dug a hole in the ground big enough to fit her pregnant belly because they would avoid whipping this area. However, they whipped her back as usual. This often induced labour in pregnant women. Overseers forced them to give birth in the fields, whilst bleeding and in agony from the whipping – and vile conditions, bad health and mental/emotional strain.
Since women were also whipped, enslaved men preferred to marry women from other plantations so they didn’t have to watch their wives being whipped. Henry Bibb said “if my wife must be exposed to the insults and licentious passions of wicked slave-drivers and overseers. Heaven forbid that I should be compelled to witness the sight”.
Enslaved people were unable to provide any testimonies in court which made it fairly easy for overseers to use whippings against black people. In 1884, it was reported that an enslaved 8-year old girl had been whipped to death. The master that enslaved her was acquitted.
1. Sexual Abuse
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Sexual abuse was a common form of punishment. Although, it was also indulged in for the satisfaction of the masters. Black women were grossly hypersexualised (stereotyped as ‘Jezebels’), and as a result, were labelled willing by nature. White women were the picture of purity and virginity, whereas black women were seen as lustful and insatiable beings.
They were thought to be habitually promiscuous and always accepting of any sexual attention. Because of this, it was ‘acceptable’ for enslaved women to suffer severe sexual abuse, often multiple times a day.
Often, white women of status (usually mistresses, wives or daughters to the masters) also sexually abused enslaved men. These “relationships” were obviously extremely dangerous for the enslaved men and would often be seen as an aggressive, sexual violation of white women – even though the enslaved men were victims of sexual abuse.
Enslaved men would frequently be forced to impregnate enslaved women. This provided children (more enslaved people) that could provide work for the plantation owners. Even when white women were impregnated by black men, the child would be birthed, enslaved and put to work on the plantation as well.
When enslaved women became pregnant, they were still forced to fulfil their duties by working extreme hours usually in warm weather, which was excruciating work and very physically dangerous. Enslaved women that were raped by their enslaver were often also subject to even more mistreatment by his wife.