Case Study

Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery

Until recently, the subject of childhood under slavery was almost entirely unstudied. This was true despite the fact that childhood is central to an understanding of slavery. In classical antiquity, abandoned children were a major source of slaves. Although most sub-Saharan Africans forced into slavery were in their teens and 20s, a substantial and growing proportion were children. In the American South in the decades before the Civil War, half of all slaves were under the age of 16.

A focus on children not only underscores slavery's oppressions, it also reveals the ways that enslaved children and their parents dealt with slavery's hardships and horrors. It demonstrates that even children were active agents who were able to carve out a space where they could find a degree of autonomy.

The study of slave children has brought many important facts to light. Infant and child mortality rates were twice as high among slave children as among southern white children. A major contributor to the high infant and child death rate was chronic undernourishment. Slaveowners showed surprisingly little concern for slave mothers' health or diet during pregnancy, providing pregnant women with no extra rations and employing them in intensive field work even in the last week before they gave birth. Not surprisingly, slave mothers suffered high rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and deaths shortly after birth. Half of all slave infants weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth, or what we would today consider to be severely underweight.

Growth rates among slave children were extremely slow. Most infants were weaned early, within three or four months of birth, and then fed gruel or porridge made of cornmeal. Around the age of three, they began to eat vegetables soups, potatoes, molasses, grits, hominy, and cornbread. This diet lacked protein, thiamine, niacin, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D, and as a result, slave children often suffered from night blindness, abdominal swellings, swollen muscles, bowed legs, skin lesions, and convulsions. These apparently stemmed from beriberi, pellagra, tetany, rickets, and kwashiorkor, diseases that are caused by protein and nutritional deficiencies.

Deprived of an adequate diet, slave children were very small by modern standards. Their average height at age three was shorter than 99 percent of 20th-century American three year olds. At age 17, slave men were shorter than 96 percent of present day 17-year-old men and slave women were shorter than 80 percent of contemporary women.

About half of all U.S. slave children grew up apart from their father, either because he lived on another plantation, had been sold away, or was white. On large plantations, infants and very young children were supervised and cared for by adults other than their parents. Children as young as two or three might work at domestic chores, including childcare or collecting trash and kindling, toting water, scaring away birds, weeding, or plucking grubs off of plants. Generally, in the U.S. South, children entered field work between the ages of eight and 12.

Slave children received harsh punishments, not dissimilar from those meted out to adults. They might be whipped or even required to swallow worms they failed to pick off of cotton or tobacco plants. During adolescence, a majority of slave youth were sold or hired away.

The study of childhood under slavery has given rise to a series of controversies. One is the extent to which slave children succeeded in "stealing" a childhood. Despite slavery's hardships and brutalities, many slave children were able to experience something that we would consider a childhood. Children played with home-made toys, including improvised marbles and hobby horses. Even where education was forbidden or strongly discouraged, a surprising proportion—perhaps between five and ten percent—learned how to read and write. Through their activities, games, religion, and relations with kin and other members of the slave community, children were able to make life bearable.

Like children of the Holocaust, they played games that helped them cope with slavery's oppressions, including mock auctions or games that included whipping. Their songs, too, helped them deal with slavery's horrors. One song included the following lyrics that addressed the subject of family separation directly: "Mammy, is Ole' Massa gwin'er sell us tomorrow? / Yes, my chile. / Whar he gwin'er sell us? / Way down South in Georgia."

Another area of controversy involves the extent to which slave parents were able to shield their children from slavery's brutalities. We have discovered that there was a "tug-of-war" between slave children's parents and plantation masters and mistresses, who were eager to make slave children, especially young children, feel loyalty, and even gratitude, to their owners. To win over children's affection, owners sometime gave them gifts and favors. At times, owners asked children to report rules violations within the slave quarters.

Slave parents, in turn, sought to instill in their children a sense of loyalty to the slave community as a whole. They taught children to refer to other girls and boys as sister and brother, and to unrelated adults as aunt or uncle. Through folk tales, such as the famous "Br'er Rabbit" stories, parents taught their children how to outwit more powerful adversaries.

Less studied questions are how the lives of slave children differed in urban and rural areas or on larger and smaller plantations, and how childhood experience differed at various points in time.

Why I Taught the Source

In reconstructing children's experience under slavery, historians tap a wide range of sources. These include the published testimony of fugitive or emancipated slaves, contemporary letters, journals, plantation records, and oral histories, such as those collected by the U.S. Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Recently, scholars have supplemented traditional sources with unconventional forms of evidence, including photographs, slave songs, and artifacts, such as toys.

Published narratives by fugitive or former slaves provide especially useful insights into the world history of slave children. Especially notable are those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who were enslaved in the U.S. during the early 19th century and whose writings underscore important aspects about childhood under slavery: (1) the extent of interracial interaction, including interracial play, on plantations in the U.S. South; (2) the moment when the full reality of life-long bondage dawned on slave children and the moment when they learned that adults in their lives, including parents, could not protect them from punishment; and (3) the harsh reality of sexual abuse faced by slave girls in their teenage years.

Especially useful in helping to place slavery in a world history perspective is one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, originally published in 1772. A former slave who purchased his freedom from a Quaker merchant in 1766, he traveled across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on British merchant ships, served in the British navy, and became a leading figure in the 18th-century British antislavery movement. His autobiography, which went through nine editions between 1789 and 1797 and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian, awakened thousands of readers to the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.

His narrative challenges the view that Africa at the time of the slave trade was a benighted or backward region. His region, "a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka," was "uncommonly rich," and his fellow countrymen were "almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets." He offers a graphic account of his kidnapping into slavery at the age of 11, and describes being held captive along the West African coast for seven months before was subsequently sold to British slavers, who shipped him to Barbados and then took him to Virginia.

His narrative also offers a harrowing account of the shock and isolation he felt during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. His description of the inhuman conditions aboard the slave ship has a power that has not been matched. "The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died," he wrote. "The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate," he wrote, "added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. . . . The wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable. . . . The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

How I Introduce the Source

Our knowledge about the past is derived from surviving sources of varying reliability. Primary sources provide the raw data out of which history is reconstructed. These may include printed or published texts, unpublished manuscripts and papers, maps and other visual materials, music and other audio materials, and artifacts. Primary sources must be used cautiously and critically because they do not offer an unmediated view of the past. At best, they offer a partial view. How, then, should students read the sources? By asking a series of questions dealing with: (1) authorship (who was the author of the primary source? when and why did the author write this text?); (2) content (what information does the primary source convey? is the author propounding a thesis or argument? what rhetorical techniques does the author use?); (3) purpose (what was the author's purpose in writing this text? what was the intended audience?); and (4) reliability (is the author's account credible? how would you describe the author's tone?)

Reading the Source

I have students read several excerpts from Equiano's autobiography. Either as a class or in small groups, we discuss each one, focusing on the questions about authorship, content, purpose, and reliability noted above.

This autobiography can be read on multiple levels. It offers a graphic first-hand look at slavery's cruelties, including the process of enslavement and the horrors of the Middle Passage. It provides vivid insights into the social history of the 18th century and a gripping first-person account of the workings of triangular trade connecting Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The book is also a religious conversion narrative, which helps us understand how an individual coped with slavery's oppressions, as well as a travel narrative, which offers a vivid glimpse of the 18th-century Atlantic world.

At this point, I complicate the discussion by introducing students to a lively scholarly controversy: a recent debate over whether Equiano was actually born in Africa. Two surviving documents—Equiano's baptismal records and the Royal Navy's muster rolls—indicate that he was born in "Carolina," leading Equiano's biographer, Vincent Carretta, to conclude that his "account of Africa may be based on oral history and reading, rather than personal experience." Carretta likens the volume to another 18th-century autobiography, Benjamin Franklin's, which also uses a life story to advance larger themes and arguments. In short, reading this book challenges a reader to weigh historical evidence and to address the problematic nature of any autobiography, including the extent to which we can rely on a writer's memories and self-representation.

Critics argue that the surviving documents may be mistaken, noting, for example, that the muster list gives the wrong last name for Equiano, suggesting its reference to his birthplace might also be incorrect. I then have the students discuss whether the debate over Equiano's birthplace lessens the value of his account. Here, it is important to note that even if his account is a composite of stories and information gathered from others, this does not make it a work of fiction.

How to Cite This Source

Steven Mintz, "Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery," in Children and Youth in History, Item #57, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/57 (accessed November 22, 2014).