The era of slavery in the United States is a dark period in history when white human beings were legally permitted to buy and sell black human beings. There are countless stories and historical documents that exist that describe the ways that African slaves were treated by their white masters. The majority of slaves were captured from Africa against their will and forced to come to the United States where they were bought and sold at the will of white slave owners. Often, entire families were separated as husbands, wives, children, siblings and parents were each purchased by different masters.
Coupled with the horrendous treatment that many slaves were forced to endure, slavery in America was a time marked by the violation of human rights. Frederick Douglass was an African man who was a former slave and abolitionist. His autobiography, several slave narratives and the movie Amistad will be analyzed in order to provide a picture of slavery in America based on available literature and first hand accounts of this time in history. Former slaves provide, perhaps, the most compelling details regarding the ways they were treated. Frederick Douglass was a slave in early America.
After he was released from slavery he became an active abolitionist who gave “eloquent” speeches to other abolitionists in an effort to free all slaves (PBS, 1). Douglass was born in 1818 to a slave mother and a white father who remained unknown to Douglass all his life. He grew up with his grandparents and an aunt; his mother died when he was seven. As a child, Douglass witnessed the horrors of slavery as he watched other slaves whipped as well as being cold and hungry himself (PBS, 1). When Douglass was eight he went to Baltimore to act as a house servant.
While living in the house the master’s wife taught him to read and write, thus laying the foundation for Douglass’s later work as an abolitionist (Douglass, 10). Douglass provides first hand accounts of his experience as a slave as well as the atrocities he witnessed while a slave. His first master was called Captain Anthony but left much of the work to an overseer named Plummer. Plummer was a “miserable” man who was violent towards the slaves. Douglass writes that he witnessed Plummer cutting and slashing the heads of the female slaves and whipping other slaves until their bare skin was covered in blood (Douglass, 14).
Douglass provides a soul stirring and thought provoking account of how many slaves were treated. He remarked that the whippings he witnessed were “the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass” (Douglass, 14). This comment sums of the written accounts of many slaves who were forced to endure terrible abuse but lived to write detailed accounts of this time in order to educate future generations about the realities of slavery. Other accounts from slaves detail their experiences with being whipped as well as watching other slaves being whipped.
First hand accounts of what slavery was like provide details that are not available through textbooks and fiction accounts because they allow former slaves to tell their life story and this retelling gives a compelling and detailed account of what slaves endured. Walter Calloway was a black man born in Virginia in 1848. He was owned by John Calloway, who Walter says made them work hard but provided them with enough to eat (Jordan, 1997). However, Walter went on to describe his recollection of whippings when he or other slaves did not perform as expected.
“He had a big black boy name Mose, mean as de debil an’ strong as a ox, and de oberseer let him do all de whuppin’. An’, man, he could sho’ lay on dat rawhide lash. He whupped a nigger gal ’bout thirteen years old so hard she nearly die, an’ allus atterwa’ds she hab spells of fits or somp’n” (Jordan, 1997). Richard Toler was another slave who recalled the brutal whippings at the hands of white masters. “They get young girls and strip’em sta’k naked, and put ’em across barrels, and whip ’em till the blood run out of ’em, and then they would put salt in the raw pahts.
And ah seen it, and it was as bloody aroun’ em as if they’d stuck hogs” (Thompson, 1997). While Richard claims that the masters gave them food and medical care, he also states that they were treated like pigs (Thompson, 1997). Oral testimony of the life of these and countless other slaves allow other human beings to get as close to the pain of slavery as possible (DeLombard, 14). The written and oral accounts of slaves and former slaves, such as Frederick Douglass serve as a history lesson to the events that accompanied slavery in the United States.
The provide authentic retellings that bring about strong emotions that allow future generations to learn about and feel what it was like to have freedom and independence stolen only to be replaced with hardship and abuse (DeLombard, 14). Other literature and film sources also provide detailed accounts of events that truly happened. Movies such as Amistad provide a visual representation of what occurred during the time of slavery and are often based on first hand accounts, either written or oral. Amistad is a movie retelling of the events on board a slave ship in 1839.
The ship is bound for Northeast coast of the United States from Cuba. The ship is carrying a group of Africans who had been sold into slavery in Cuba. The beginning of the movie shows a graphic representation of the cramped and overcrowded conditions where the slaves were chained in the cargo hold (Franzoni, 1997). One man, Cinque, wiggles a nail out of the structure of the ship and uses it to free himself from his shackles. He then proceeds to free other captives in order to lead a mutiny on the ship. As a result, most of the crew is killed along with a few Africans.
Cinque allows two crew members to survive in hopes that they can be forced to sail them to safety. However, the Spanish crew tricks the Africans and sails them to the United States (Franzoni, 1997). This visual representation has the power to make viewers feel some of the hopelessness that the African slaves felt. Just as audiences are cheering the victory of the Africans, the crew tricks them once again into slavery. This movie account is powerful because it captures the feelings of the slaves through facial expressions and body language that are not available through written accounts of the atrocities of slavery.
The plea of Cinque and the discovery of a book detailing the illegal slave trade eventually lead to the release of the African slaves (Franzoni, 1997). This movie goes beyond showing the feelings of the Africans with regards to slavery and also shows the sympathy or lack of sympathy on the part of many white Americans. This is important because a different perspective allows audiences to see that not all white citizens endorsed slavery and many actually felt terrible about the way that African slaves were treated. This is not a perspective often offered in association with slavery.
While slavery is certainly one of the most horrendous times in American history, Amistad captures both the plight of the African slaves as well as the white Americans who challenged the law and acted as advocates for a group of people who could not even speak the language. Many accounts of slavery also detail the positive aspects of being owned by a master. Many slaves discuss the fact that they always had what they needed. They always had food to eat and clothes to wear even if they had to cook the food and make the clothes or if the food and cloth were of the poorest quality (Mesick, 137).
However, slaves never lost their desire for freedom and having all their needs met came at a high price. They were forced to give up their independence and become the property of another human being (Mesick, 137). The overwhelming amount of literature that deals with the days of slavery paint a graphic picture about the terrible conditions that African slaves were forced to endure at the hands of their white masters. Not only does the literature present compelling stories about slavery, it also paints a clear picture for readers and audiences about the feelings of hopelessness that slaves felt on a daily basis.
The firsthand accounts of slavery as well as the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and the portrayal slavery in Amistad very clearly show the fear that slaves lived with on a daily basis. The African slaves lived in fear of the ill treatment at the hands of their masters, the lived in fear that they would be sold to another master thus being separated from loved ones and primarily they lived in fear that they would never rise above slave status to find freedom (Mesick, 137). Douglass describes the songs that slaves would sing that told of their plight.
“Every tone was a testament against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains” (Douglass, 18). Firsthand accounts as well as visual representations show slaves who are clothed and fed. However, they also show the despair that slaves felt within because of the realization that they had a very small chance of finding their freedom. White slave owners took much more than an African slave’s independence. They also took their material possessions, dignity, ability to acquire an education, their time and liberty, their right to free speech, their right to own property and their reputation (DeLombard, 14).
Walter Calloway recalls “Nawsuh, we didn’t git no schoolin’ ‘cep’in’ befo’ we got big ‘nough to wuk in de fiel’ we go ‘long to school wid de white chillun to take care of ’em. Dey show us pictures an’ tell us all dey kin, but it didn’t ‘mount to much” (Jordan, 1997). Richard Toler describes his lack of the basic material possessions necessary for survival, “till I was 16, nevah had no clothes” (Thompson, 1997). Douglass writes, perhaps, the most vivid and real account of slavery from the perspective of a slave as well as a slave owner.
This account and others like it are extraordinarily valuable historical resources. The “throw light” on the American slave system and the ramifications that manifested in the lives of African slaves (Douglass, 83). Accounts such as Douglass’s as well as visual representations of slavery provide future generations with accurate and real portrayals of this dark time in history. DeLombard, Jeannine Marie. Slavery on trial: abolitionism, and print culture. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.
Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Company, 2004. Franzoni, David. “Amistad. ” 1997. Jordan, W. P. “Interview Walter Calloway. ” 1997. 28 July 2009 <http://xroads. virginia. edu/~hyper/wpa/callowa1. html>. Mesick, Jane Louise. The English traveler in America, 1785 – 1835. New York: Columbia University Press, 1922. PBS. com. “Frederick Douglass. ” 2009. 28 July 2009 <http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1539. html>. Thompson, Ruth. “Interview Richard Toler. ” 1997 28 July 2009 <http://xroads. virginia. edu/~hyper/wpa/toler1. html>.