Slavery was work, and for most slaves it was monotonous and relatively undifferentiated labor. Lowcountry South Carolina plantations were distinguished by the use of the task system rather than gang labor. Under this system a slave cultivated a certain measure of land, normally a quarter of an acre, and had the rest of the day to him-or herself when the task was completed. How the task system developed in Carolina is not entirely clear. Some scholars believe that tasking was best suited to hardy crops, such as rice, that did not require minute supervision, or in cases when a production schedule was not urgent, or when the labor force was scattered, which made close supervision difficult. Gang labor, in which slaves worked in unison, from dawn to dusk, under the direction of an overseer, was needed where close supervision was required. Whatever the precise lines of evolution, the procedure became highly identified with, though not exclusive to, the South Carolina–Georgia lowcountry; and it was used with Sea Island (long staple) cotton as with rice.
The task system benefited planters by encouraging slaves to complete an assignment quickly and well and by attaching them to the plantation. As one planter proclaimed, “no Negro with a well-stocked poultry house, a small crop advancing, a canoe partly finished or a few tubs unsold, all of which he calculates soon to enjoy, will ever run away.” Slaves worked on their own garden plots and were allowed to sell or trade the produce. In this way slaves could accumulate money and personal property and validate their sense of self-worth. Of course, some slaves complained that masters did not properly honor the task arrangement and routinely created tasks that most slaves could not easily, or quickly, complete. Some planters roundly resented the independence the system provided and attempted various ways to constrain it. But the consequences were so disruptive of plantation harmony, in particular of a productive work regimen, that few planters attempted for long to alter an accepted custom. By the nineteenth century most slaves probably worked ten hours or so daily.
Black foremen, or “drivers,” were also important in the region and exercised considerable authority. The driver was distinguished not so much by his ability to use the whip as by his power to assign tasks. An effective driver accurately measured the task to the capacity of the laborer and ensured that work ran smoothly. He had an influence in the white community as well as the black one. If a white overseer was present, he ignored the driver at his peril, for these men could determine the success or failure of the enterprise. Because drivers had the free time earned by industrious laborers who completed their tasks early, they were entitled to help from other members of the slave community in their private endeavors, such as raising supplemental goods. They often retained their positions of leadership at emancipation.
Fifty miles inland the choice between tasking or gang labor depended largely on the size of the estate. Small farmers with few slaves could usually not afford the task system as too much needed to be done. Slaves were usually compensated, however, by some small plot for their own cultivation. In the middle region most planters probably used tasking, though not all liked it. James Henry Hammond tried diligently to bend his slaves from tasking to gang labor but eventually had to acquiesce. In the upcountry gang labor prevailed, with slaves working the traditional routine of sunup to sundown. Many of the dynamics of slavery were different on small as opposed to large units of production, and in cotton as opposed to rice production. Upcountry slaves were less likely to have their own garden plots, for example. But even in the upcountry, early features of slavery as established on the coast, particularly in terms of the task system, had to be taken into account. For example, some might use gang labor in cultivating cotton but the task system in harvesting.
Though the majority of plantation laborers worked in the fields, the important minority that exercised skills was crucial to the profitable management of a plantation. Carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, boatmen, coachmen, and even jockeys who raced their masters’ horses were all in positions that afforded the enslaved a degree of status and responsibility. In the domestic arena, women might engage in sewing, washing (which, considering the requirements of heavy pots, scalding water, and corrosive soaps, demanded strength as well as skill), and cooking (which a man might do also). Men or women might be personal servants of one kind or another (as valets), obliging sensitivity, perception, and presence perhaps as much as skill. Domestic and field slaves on a plantation would have different work routines. Domestic slaves were “on call” at all hours, unlike their field-hand counterparts. The close proximity of domestic slaves to their owners meant that they could easily become the victims of displaced aggression and be reprimanded readily. But the division between house servants and field hands should not be overdrawn, for the people in the “Big House” had ties of blood and marriage to those in the fields.
Urban slavery also had its special demands and labor practices. Particularly in Charleston, ironworking was a specialized profession, and much of the decorative work that graces the city was done by enslaved Africans. Charleston slaves also worked as bricklayers, plasterers, coopers, tailors, and in other trades. In 1860 the West Point Rice Mills on the Ashley River owned 160 slaves who worked in a variety of positions. Masters also hired out slave labor to others. Although slaves could not legally hire themselves out, the law was widely violated, and some urban slaves were left free to negotiate their own wages and hours.
Slave labor affected slave women differently than male slaves. Whether raising rice or cotton, women were disadvantaged in that they were less likely to be trained as artisans and more likely than men to be confined to fieldwork. They also had the additional responsibilities of motherhood and the care of families, within the limits permitted by their other duties. On some estates they were responsible for sewing clothes as well as preparing daily meals for their own families. Children had little time for childhood, performing light chores beginning at age five or six and were introduced to the fields between the ages of ten and twelve. While labor was constant, slavery was not the monolithic institution it is sometimes made out to be. It changed over time and across regions.
Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Hudson, Larry E., Jr. To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Morgan, Phillip D. “Work and Culture: The Task System and the World of Lowcountry Blacks, 1700 to 1880.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 39 (October 1982): 563–99.
White, Deborah G. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. Rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1999.