The Master

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The Master

The meaning and power of the word master during the years of slavery perhaps depended on the character of those who bore the title. The various masters portrayed in a number of slave narratives and slave autobiographies evoke a range of emotions from admiration to utter disgust.

The Autobiography of a Female Slave (1857), a novel and pseudo-slave narrative written by Mattie Griffiths (d. 1906) to press the cause of abolition, is written in the voice of a slave girl called Ann. Griffiths was the owner, by inheritance, of six slaves. She hated the peculiar institution and moved north to get away from it. She details bondage under a master of horrific temperament and deeds. The reader is drawn to a place and time full of brutalities that no human being should have to endure. Before introducing the cruel master, however, the author provides a glimpse into the character of a kinder master. Life under the first master was ideal and very different from the life of most slaves in southern Kentucky. Ann (Griffiths) describes the first master, Mr. Nelson, as "a large venerable-looking man, with scanty, gray locks floating carelessly over an amplified forehead, a wide, hard featured face, with yet a kindly glow of honest sentiment; broad, strong teeth, much discolored by the continued use of tobacco"(p. 9). This master promised to give Ann "a good thrashing at some future period," but never did. Ann remembers that "as a token of good-will, he always presented us (the slave children) with a slice of buttered bread" (p. 9).

Ex-slave George Fleming expressed fond memories of his master: "I longed [belonged] to Marse Sam Fleming. Lawd chile, dat's de best white man what ever breathed de good air…. On the plantation we lived jes' like a great family wid Marsa de daddy of 'em all…. When any slaves got sick, Marse took care of em till they got well" (Born in Slavery, 2001, South Carolina Narratives, statement no. 2, n.p.). Henry Bibb (b. 1815), author of Narrative of the Life and Adventures of HenryBibb, an American Slave (originally published in 1849), offers a less affectionate characterization of slaveholders (masters):

The slaveholders [masters] are generally rich, aristocratic, overbearing; they look with utter contempt upon a poor laboring man, who earns his bread by the "sweat of his brow," whether he be moral or immoral, honest or dishonest. No matter whether he is white or black; if he performs manual labor for a livelihood, he is looked upon as being inferior to a slaveholder, and but little better off than the slave, who toils without wages under the lash. (1969, p. 25)

Griffiths writes, in Autobiography of a Female Slave, about her confusion over the master's lack of concern for maintaining slave families as a unit of support: "Why, I remember that when master sold the gray mare, the colt went also. Who could, who would, [and] who dared, separate the parent from her offspring?" (1857, p. 16). Perhaps if the author had not allowed the old, kindly master to die suddenly, the life of her main character would have taken on a different twist. The estate had to be settled and as a consequence the young master, the son of Mr. Nelson, sold Ann: "a tall, hard-looking man came up to me, very roughly seized my arm, bade me open my mouth; examined my teeth; felt of my limbs; made me run a few yards; ordered me to jump; and being satisfied with my activity, said to Master Edward, 'I will take her.'" Ann then recalls her mother's pain: "my mother's … whole frame was distorted with pain…. No, no, I can't do it…. [R]ocking her body back and forward in a transport of agony, she gave full vent to her feelings in a long, loud, piteous wail." It was that cry of grief, that "knell" of a breaking heart, that rang in Ann's ears for many long and painful days (p. 12). Ann was filled with a new horror as she witnessed the anguish of her relatives: "and forgetful of the presence of Peterkin [the new master], I burst into tears: but I was quickly recalled by a fierce and stinging blow from his stout riding whip" (p. 16). Thus the character of the new master is established.

Charity Morris was interviewed by Parnella Anderson for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers' Project. She gives this account of her master's death: "When de ole haid [master] died out dey chillun get de property. You see we slaves wuz de property. Den we got separated. Some sent one way and some another. Hit jes happent dat Marse Jim drawed me" (Born in Slavery 2001, p. 2, document 30005, p. 149). Norrece Jones compiled, in Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave, evidence from various sources that masters relied far more heavily on punishments than on rewards to keep slaves working. Jones adds: "the former ranged from physical torture to psychological terror, and all segments of white society concurred that some form of either, if not both, was essential" (1990, p. 72). William Colbert was born in 1844 in Fort Valley and remembered his master as "a mean man": "Jawsuh, he warn't good to none of us niggers. All de niggers hated to be bought by him kaze he wuz so mean. When he wuz too tired to whup us, he has the overseer to do it: and the overseer was meaner dan de massa" (Born in Slavery, 2001, Alabama Narratives, vol. 1, item 3, p. 1).

The words master and control may have appeared synonymous in Autobiography of a Female Slave, as slaves endured degradation and brutality under the rule of master Peterkin. The harshness of southern slavery is suggested by the author's remark that she did not believe that slavery existed in a more brutal and cruel form anywhere else than in Kentucky where she lived (Griffiths 1857, p. 103).

Having been taught how to read by her former owners, Ann was a Bible scholar who asked questions pertaining to the treatment of the slaves by her master:

We are told to love our master. Why should we? Are we dogs to lick the hand that strikes us? Or are we men and woman with never dying souls—men and women unprotected in the very land they have toiled to beautify and adorn (Griffiths 1857, p. 125).

Later in the novel she explains: "The masters who instruct their slaves in religion, could be numbered, and I will venture to assert that, if the census were taken in the State of Kentucky the number would not exceed twenty" (p. 209).


Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave [1849]. New York: Negro University Press, 1969.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936–1938. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Washington, DC, 2001. Available online from

Griffiths, Mattie. Autobiography of a Female Slave. New York: Redfield, 1857.

Jones, Norrece T. Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

                        Johnnie M. Maberry-Gilbert

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The Master

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