Discipline and Punishment: An Overview

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Discipline and Punishment: An Overview

Slave masters used various forms of discipline and punishment to control their slaves. "The fear of punishment was one of the few incentives a slave had to work hard and be obedient" (Finkenbine 2004). As slave owners sought to affirm their gentility, they simultaneously worked their slaves relentlessly. Slaves that failed to meet these rigorous demands faced severe punishment that often resulted in death. To be sure, all forms of discipline issued by slave masters centered upon cruel coercion. Maiming, branding, whipping, iron collars, jailing, patrols, dogs, and the threat of sale all served as forms of punishment to ensure discipline among slaves. Yet slave masters also leveraged the use of quotidian necessities such as food and clothing in order to manage slave behavior and to ensure maximum production as well as cooperation among their slaves.

Some slave owners attempted to ensure discipline through a reward system that extended various gratuities to slaves in order to guarantee their cooperation. Other slave owners used black informants to keep order on the plantation. Jeptha Choice, a former slave, reported that in the field there "was always a big strong nigger to keep peace among the hands. He was called by the other slaves 'nigger traitor' behin' his back, and was sorta like a straw boss man." Slaves generally understood, that the informant in the fields generally "had to be good with his fists to make the boys who got bad in the field walk the line" (Mellon 1988, p. 138). As a result, this added reinforcement to the supervision imposed by the overseer and kept slaves on their toes as to who among them could not be trusted.

Ostensibly, slave cruelty reached a blasé level for slave masters by the 1700s. For example, one Virginia slave owner noted in his journal on April 17, 1709, that "Anaka was whipped yesterday for stealing rum and filling the bottle up with water. I said my prayers and I danced my dance. Eugene was whipped again for pissing in bed and Jenny for concealing it" ("Terrible Trams-formation: The Growth of Slavery in North America" 1998). Though slave masters used a number of methods to discipline their slaves, whipping became the main form of corporal punishment on most plantations. Considered the most common form of punishment, slave masters generally conducted whipping as a public ritual designed to warn the larger population of slave onlookers. As noted in the instance above, the infraction for which a slave master decided to whip his or her slave seemed trivial. Slave masters seemed impervious to such abuses, however, and they often searched for ways to further degrade their slaves. Certainly slave owner William Byrd's (1674–1744) decision to force his bed-wetting slave to "drink a pint of piss" and Joseph Ball's placement of a metal bit in the mouth of persistent runaways tend to support this inclination (Berlin 1998, p. 116).

Numerous slaves came face-to-face with the whipping post, also known as the slave jail. According to former slave Delia Garlic, "folks a mile away could hear dem awful whipping." And despite the amount of pain slave masters tried to inflict, Alex Woods recalled "Dey wouldn't allow 'em to call on de Lord when dey were whippin' 'em." Rather, while slave masters whipped their slaves, they made sure slaves understood the disciplinary message associated with each beating as they asked questions such as, "Are you goin' to work? Are you goin' vistin' widout a pass? Are you goin' to run away?" (Mellon 1988, p. 244). The message attached to whipping often haunted slaves. Historian John Blassingame noted that "Henry Watson testified that all of his fellow slaves feared his mistress because of her frequent use of the lash." In extreme cases "the fear of punishment," Blassingame wrote, "became unbearable." This was the case for Lewis Clarke, a former slave who "was so afraid of being flogged that he often walked in his sleep" (1979, pp. 295-296).

Made of iron, slave collars helped to identify slaves as well as serve as a harsh form of discipline for those slaves that did not fully receive the intended message associated with whipping. Used mostly in special instances to deter slaves from fleeing, the iron collar usually had three prongs that helped intensify the grip and pain. Abolitionist Theodore Weld (1803–1895), in American Slavery As It Is (1839), provided a captivating account of how a young mulatto girl, nearly twenty, refused to allow her slave owners to break her independent spirit. The anonymous slave girl escaped numerous times and to discourage future attempts her slave master elected to place upon her neck a heavy iron collar, with three long prongs projecting from it.

Not all slave owners resorted to such physically oppressive means to regulate their slaves, rather many slave masters required slaves to wear badges. Other slave owners used threats of sale to subdue restless slaves. The fear of being sold away from relatives and loved ones served as a serious concern for many slaves. According to Blassingame, "[s]trong men pleaded, with tears in their eyes, for their master to spare their loved ones. Mothers screamed and clung grimly to their children only to be kicked away by the slave trader" (1979, p. 297). The grief associated with losing a loved one seemed insurmountable and those slaves that endured such sorrow usually became overwhelmed with depression. Each of these disciplinary methods employed by slave owners intended to diminish if not completely obliterate the spirit of freedom innate in the soul of each slave.

As slavery intensified and states made the transition from a society with slaves into a slave society, various states tightened their restrictions on slaves fearing the rise of a slave rebellion. For example, in South Carolina authorities sought to subdue slaves by branding, whipping, dismembering, castrating, or even killing them. The latter actions did not warrant capital punishment for slave masters. Rather, lawmakers in South Carolina, by 1690, decided, "slaveholders and their agents to be legally blameless for the death of a slave as a result of correction … [and] there was no capital punishment for the murder of slaves in South Carolina" (Berlin 1998, p. 150). By 1710, the African slave population exceeded that of Europeans living in South Carolina, which further assured white slave masters that discipline through punishment must remain the primary method for control over the growing slave population.

The concerns of slave masters proved valid as numerous slaves pushed back against the various forms of punishment, discipline, and the institution of slavery at large. Though slave uprisings occurred prior to 1739, the Stono Rebellion that same year in South Carolina served as an ominous realization of the greatest fear held by white slave owners—that even the harshest punishments failed to suppress black men and women's will to regain their freedom. The Gabriel (1776–1800) plot in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, followed by Denmark Vesey's (1767–1822) conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and Nat Turner's (1800–1831) uprising in Virginia during 1831 all served as important historical moments that refuted the notion of slave docility. To be certain, large-scale rebellions remained rare, but other forms of daily slave resistance also support the notion that slaves hardly acquiesced with their poor living conditions. Moreover the subsequent increase in discipline and the extreme forms of punishment that resulted after each instance of slave resistance made it extremely difficult for slaves to openly contest the institution that confined them and ultimately forced them to place a premium on covert actions. Arguably, the increase in discipline and punishment reflect the constant zeal of slaves seeking to grasp freedom.

The regulation of slaves did not hinge solely upon the random circulation of terror. Instead, white slave owners calculated much of the slave surveillance process. For example, the slave masters made use of violent patrols, or patter-rollers, at night to see that the slaves were not planning any mischief. The slave masters allowed these patrols to do with the slaves as they liked. This included stealing money from slaves and taking sexual advantage of wives and daughters. Even when slaves received a pass from their slave master granting them permission to visit a significant other on a neighboring plantation, it was not at all uncommon for the patrols to break in and abuse the girl as bad as they can to deliberately provoke a response from the male slave. If the slave looked even remotely disturbed by the actions of the patrols, then the patrols would "give him a flogging, tear up his pass, turn him out of doors, and then take him up and whip him for being out without a pass" (Finkenbine 2004, pp. 65-66). This type of situation produced a no-win scenario for slaves as the slave master almost always sided with the patrols. In addition, slaves could possibly face even greater scrutiny from the patrols for telling on them. By employing these forms of discipline and punishment slave masters endeavored to ensure complete subordination among the slaves. However, whereas many slaves died to preserve their independence, others found creative ways to carve out a modicum of space within the institution of slavery and retain their autonomy by fighting certain battles. Either way, slaves constantly presented slave masters with renewed resistance.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Finkenbine, Roy E. Sources of the African American Past: Primary Sources in American History. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2004.

Mellon, James, ed. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

"Slave Collar." Smithsonian Institution. Available from http://www.civilwar.si.edu/slavery_collar.html.

"Terrible Transformation: The Growth of Slavery in North America." Africans in America. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1998, Available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr5.html.

Weld, Theodore. American Slavery As It Is; Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839.

                                        T. E. Robinson