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fjv > -L ( For Betterfor Worse: The Slaves' World of Work Until recently, popular pictures of slavery have identified a class-based construct of slave life in which the slaves who lived and worked within the world of the master received from him the benefitsand rewards that determined their economic and social well-being. These "fortunate" few occupied the upper echelons of the slave hierarchy, while the vast majority of slaves, whose working life was spent in the fields, struggled to rise above their lowly status and move into the ranks of the slave elite.1 The primary means by which slaves were able to gain status in the private world of the slave quarters, however, wasnot necessarily related to their physical or social proximity to their masters but depended far more on their ability and willingness to work hard for themselves. Slaves had to perform well in the public arena working for their masters, but how they used their time outside the master's world profoundly affected their economic and social life. Therefore, unskilled field slaves, who had little or no positive contact with white masters and infrequently were recipients of white largesse, could still accumulate the material wherewithal to place themselves high up in the social hierarchy of the slave quarters.2 How they used the time available after completing the work assigned by the master primarily determined the economic and social benefits that accrued to the slaves, their families, and the slave quarter community. The rewards that resulted from these "extra-work" activities structured i TO HAVE AND TO HOLD significant institutions in the slave quarters, particularly slave family life. Of course, the nature and quantity of "extra" time the slave enjoyed depended on the disposition of the master, his financial situation, the location of the plantation, the amount of land available for cultivation, the staples produced, and the size of the slave labor force. These were the factors that not only made slavery viable in some areas and less so in others but also gave the institution its perplexing variety, examplesof which were all present in antebellum South Carolina.3 By the late eighteenth century a system whereby slaves were assigned a measured amount of work to be completed within a given period of time, usually a working day, had taken root in low-country plantations.4 Lowcountry slaves were thus permitted some control over the length of their working day. The agricultural standard workday of "from sunup to sundown " was not forced on all low-country slaves, whether they labored in the rice or the cotton fields. Furthermore, as the practice of tasking spread to a wider variety of labor activities on the plantation, it also moved beyond South Carolina's tidewater regions. Although the task system did not automatically shorten the slaves' workday, this remained a consistent result and may have been intended. In most cases the length of the working day would have depended on the size of the task combined with the slave's ability, desire, and willingness to work at a pace that would complete the task within the allotted time. Writing in 1858, Sandy Island planter James R. Sparkman recorded that the "ordinary plantation task is easily accomplished during the winter months in 8 to 9 hours and in the summer, my people seldom exceed 10 hours labor per day." As the necessary incentive, "whenever the daily task is finished the balance of the day is appropriated to their own purposes."5 For Sparkman the system clearly operated as an incentive for his slaves to work hard and complete their task as quickly as they could. Some masters introduced an additional feature to the task system by making the slaves responsible for the working of a particular area of a field throughout the seasons' full cycle of ground preparation, planting, weeding , and harvesting. These planters hoped their slaves would develop an attachment to the land that might produce in them a sense of pride and responsibility .6 One such planter, writing in 1833 in the SouthernAgriculturalist , advocated this beneficial aspect of the task system: "Whatever tasks a 2 For Betterfor Worse negro commences with," he wrote, "are considered his throughout the working of the crop." Allowing that sickness and other unforeseen events were likely to produce a "little variation in this plan," the planter explained that "where a negro knows that the task he is working is to be worked by him the next time he goes over the field, he...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820337272
Related ISBN
9780820318301
MARC Record
OCLC
656846698
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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