When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following, If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.
An ordinary day’s work is two hundred pounds. A slave who is accustomed to picking, is punished, if he or she brings in a less quantity than that. There is a great difference among them as regards this kind of labor. Some of them seem to have a natural knack, or quickness, which enables them to pick with great celerity, and with both hands, while others, with whatever practice or industry, are utterly unable to come up to the ordinary standard. Such hands are taken from the cotton field and employed in other business….
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the quarters, however late it be, until the order to halt is given by the driver.
The day’s work over in the field, the baskets are “toted,” or in other words, carried to the gin-house, where the cotton is weighed… This done, the labor of the day is not yet ended, by any means. Each one must then attend to his respective chores. One feeds the mules, another the swine-another cuts the wood, and so forth; besides, the packing is all done by candlelight. Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil, Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper, and dinner for the next day in the field, prepared. All that is allowed them is corn and bacon, which is given out at the corncrib and smoke-house every Sunday morning. Each one receives, as his weekly allowance, three and half pounds of bacon, and corn enough to make a peck of meal. That is all-no tea, coffee, sugar, and, with the exception of a very scanty sprin- kling now and then, no salt.
From TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northrup. Copyright (c) 1968 by Louisiana State University Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Prepared by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003