Seasonal Rhythms of Life

views updated

Seasonal Rhythms of Life

Seasonal changes greatly impacted the lives of Africans and African Americans laboring as slaves in the United States. On plantations, where agricultural work was paramount, the rhythms of life centered on the planting and harvesting of crops such as rice, tobacco, and cotton. Yet the seasons also shaped the experiences of slaves living in cities. In port towns such as New York or Boston, it was not uncommon for icy waters to bring ship-based trade to a halt during the harshest winters. Thus, in the North and the South, the seasons dictated the patterns of labor, shaped access to food, and directly influenced slave health.

Slaves that labored on plantations began to clear the fields for planting new crops in January and February. Planters with enough land at their disposal usually elected to rotate the fields at the beginning of each season so that the upcoming crop would be cultivated in fresh soil. Overgrowth from the previous year was cut down and burned in preparation for the upcoming planting season. On tobacco and cotton plantations, the newly burnt lands were cleared with hoes and sometimes horse or mule driven plows. On rice plantations, slash-and-burn clearing was not as common. Slaves in South Carolina used the tide-flow system, which depended on the careful manipulation of the ebb and flow of the local waterways to flood and drain selected fields. Male slaves were given axes to remove trees from new rice fields, and women and children were assigned the tasks of clearing the brush and shrubs.

Once the lands were cleared, slaves began the backbreaking work of tilling the soil in preparation for planting seed. By March, slaves in tobacco and cotton fields began hoeing the soil into small mounds arranged in rows while making sure that the dirt was free of grubs and other nutrient leaching bugs or plants. Most slaves were expected to create at least 350 mounds per day (Morgan 1998, p. 167). In the tidal waters of South Carolina, slaves closed the ruptures along the riverbanks, cleared the drains, prepared sluices, and leveled the fields. Slaves planted the tobacco seed by the end of March, but the intensive labor required to secure the rivers pushed the planting of rice seed into the beginning of April.

Slaves also had to devote what time they could to planting and preparing their provision grounds in the spring. On the largest plantations, slaves often grew their own corn, beans, and yams on small garden plots. In 1732 one onlooker noted that Chesapeake planters allowed slaves "to plant little Platts for potatoes or Indian pease … on Sundays or [at] night" (Morgan, p. 140). Food crops such as yams and corn were crucial supplements to the slave's meager rations provided by most masters. Provision grounds, when available, enabled slaves to guard against starvation. With the entire day dedicated to raising their master's crops, nighttime cultivation of communal gardens was a necessity for slaves laboring in the plantation regime.

The long days and hot sun of the summer months contributed to making it the most grueling season for slaves. Rice fields were continually hoed from June through August. Some slaves were forced to wade waist deep in water for hours to stave off birds while others remained on their hands and knees picking weeds and grass from the soil. On tobacco plantations, slaves spent the summer months transplanting tobacco plants and removing ground worms and caterpillars.

The long days, tedious labor, and overt supervision during the summer contributed to slave discontent. In Virginia, more slaves ran away in April—the height of the planting season. Most runaways in South Carolina elected to flee in June at the beginning of the seemingly incessant period of weeding and tilling. The harvesting of tobacco began at the end of August and usually lasted until late September. The delicate tobacco plants were cut and then hung to dry in the tobacco house. In the fall, the tobacco was carefully inspected, separated into various qualities, and then rolled and packed into hogsheads for shipping abroad. The rice harvest began in September. Slaves drained the fields while others followed with sickles, cutting swaths of rice stalks and stacking them to dry. Rice was processed by hand. Slaves threshed the grain with a flail and removed the husk with a mortar and pestle. After winnowing the chaff from the grain of rice, the kernels were screened of the "rice flour" and broken pieces before being placed in barrels for shipment.

Christmas usually marked the conclusion of the year's labor. On many plantations, slaves expected their masters to allow them "free time"—anywhere from a day to a week—during the holiday. Slaves seized the opportunity to get married, visit relatives on nearby plantations, hold feasts, and plan insurrections. Masters used December 25 to affect benevolence by giving their favored slaves gifts of cloth, rum, and meat. As James Williams recalled, "on Flinchers plantation the slaves had meat but once a year, at Christmas" (1838, p. 65). Frederick Douglass also remarked on the holiday and what it exposed about the seasonal rhythms of life under slavery: "these holidays serve as conductors, or safetyvalves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity" (1845, p. 75).


Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. "The Time O' All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South." Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2. (1998): 263-288.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Dublin: 1845.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Peter Smith, 1952.

Williams, James. Narrative of James Williams: An American Slave who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama. New York: 1838.

                                       James F. Dator