Were slaves ever allowed to “retire”

The life of an American slaves was undoubtedly brutal, even if the abuse wasn’t considered. Field work must have been exhausting, and I imagine that stress fractures or pulled muscles were common. Even house work offered little reprieve, since chores in those days often involved laborious work.

For that reason, it is my understanding that most slaves did not live exceptionally long. But some surely did. And as things like arthritis or cataracts develop over time, I bet that even mundane tasks like peeling potatoes or sewing become impossible.

So, what became of these people. Were they ever allowed to while away their time around the slave quarters in their final years?

For a reference source, you can read what Booker T. Washington wrote about his youth as a slave. Basically, an elderly slave watched him when he was a toddler, and a little older. (He saw infants strapped to enslaved mother’s backs, during field labor, for ease of nursing, and older slave children were send to work as needed.)

There’s also the concept of injured, or crippled slaves, being sold “by the dozen”, so any slave in that condition would be one of the dozen, from that “the dozens” or snaps, or ‘yo mama’ jokes arise. Dozens (game) - Wikipedia

But yes, everyone at this time, worked to their capability. Even those who were enslaved. If you can’t perform field work, there is housekeeping, cooking, childcare, crafting and other things to do. I can’t find a non-paywalled reference, but its widely reported that Jack Daniel learned to make whiskey, not from a Lutheran preacher as the myth went, but from a crippled black slave.

Here’s how Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, describes the situation faced by his grandmother in her old age:

Not exactly retirement as we understand the term.

While personal recollections may be vivid, they also may be inaccurate. And even at best, they do not clarify what was usually done.

The firs thing to understand is that retirement wasn’t really a phase of life for most people, slaves or otherwise. People would often work less as they passed their 50’s, but they generally didn’t stop entirely until they were disabled or, well, dead, or if they were were wealthy enough to deal.

That being said, slaveowners ran their slaves far harder than necessary, because, well, they were trying to get the maximum work for the minimum expense. Statistically, even overall healthy adult slaves rarely hit age 65. This was due as much to bad diet and medical knowledge as anything else, but few owners were in the habit of providing for older slaves as a matter of charity. They would end up doing work, and given the relatively cheap cost of maintaining a slave (compared to purchasing one) they were likely still profitable.

The traditional ‘Marxist’ view of the American Civil War was that it represented a stage in the inevitable ‘scientific’ progression from a slave economy – where you were responsible for the slave from birth through death – to the more economically efficient ‘capitalist’ economy, where you old paid wages for work – and had no responsibility at all other than working wages.

We scarcely need to discuss the morality of slavery, but it’s not always clear that emancipation made things better for old people.

From “Life and Labour of the People in London”

“The street-sellers of boot and stay-laces and of such things as sewing cotton, threads and tapes, when sold separately from more valuable articles, are children and old people, some of whom are infirm, and some blind. The children have, in some instances, been bred to the streets; the old people probably are worn out in street-trades requiring health and strength, and so adopt a less laborious calling, or else they have been driven to it, either from comparatively better circumstances, or by some privation or affliction, in order to avoid the workhouse.”

Booth’s report and ‘Poverty Maps’ were largely responsible for that change:

Year after year, Booth promoted his pension scheme, in articles and books and speeches, citing always the volumes of statistics he had collected on the relation between old age and poverty. Vigorously opposing him were the spokesmen of the charity organizations who argued that a state “dole” was no substitute for personal guidance by social workers, that the poor simply lacked the strength to be independent. But the demand for pensions mounted, especially from the burgeoning trade union movement, and by the turn of the century, the Liberal Party had incorporated Booth’s proposal into its platform. In 1908, two years after the smashing Liberal victory which ushered in the British welfare state, Parliament passed the Old Age Pensions Act.

Charles Booth’s London

Before I read the thread, my thought was ‘Slave owners worked them until they were unprofitable then cast them out under guise of freeing them’. Douglas’ account jibes perfectly with that. When her owner decided that she was not worth the cost of food, he cast her out.

Semi Hijack

The original zombie stories come from Haiti. The fear was not of being attacked by zombies. It was of becoming a zombie. A slave could at least dream of freedom in the afterlife. A zombie is a slave FOREVER.

It’s worth mentioning that slaveowners often claimed that their cradle-to-grave relationship with their slaves was morally superior to the “wage slavery” of the North. This is not supported by the sources, but the story still lingers. The story of Mammy, passing peacefully in her old age, surrounded by the white children she loved more than her own kids, was a powerfully reassuring myth for the Sputh.

Yep. One of the primary sources I have my college US History students read is a selection from George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society, where he describes the Southern slave system as “a form, and the very best form, of socialism,” one that eliminates all of the nasty competition and insecurity of northern capitalism. You can see something similar in this 1850 image, “Slavery as it exists in America; Slavery as it exists in England,” which contrasts happy and healthy and grateful black slaves with the poor and weak and downtrodden English working classes.

Free people had the right to sell their own labor and keep the money, setting aside some for their old age when they could no longer work. Slaves had owners who took all of their labor for their own ends and gave nothing to the slave to put aside.

The other social network of the era was families. People raised children in the expectation that those children would provide for their needs in turn when they grew old. But again, slaves didn’t have this; their owners sold off their children.

No reference to him being crippled that I can find…

One interesting fact about Roman slaves is that some of them were somehow able to save money and/or buy their freedom, even though legally speaking everything belonged to the master. And that, as patron, the former owner had some responsibility for his freed slaves and was not supposed to allow them to become destitute.

All this was, presumably, not simply out of the kindness of their hearts; perhaps they did not want old slaves and freedmen to become public wards.

And Fitzhugh seems unaware of the notion of “socialism” as “the social, not individual, ownership of the means of production”

One discussion I recall mentioned that the life of a coton plantation slave was firstly, a horrible job when it was time to pick cotton - the buds where sharp and pricked the fingers, making them complete callused - hence the term cotton pickin’ hands. But the other interesting aspect was that apart from some maintenance, there was nothing to do for 10 months of the year. Hired hands would not wait around getting no pay, and plantation owners could not afford to pay workers to do nothing. Hence, slavery was the economic choice - and during those down times, the only expense was a minimal amount of food to keep them alive until the next harvest. A lifetime of starvation and minimal health care in the days of regular epidemics probably contributed to most dying early.

(Reminds me also of the Malcolm Gladwell description of the life of overtaxed French peasants, who other than planting and harvest, simply lay around doing almost nothing as the nobility left them barely enough food to survive)

I’ve heard otherwise. I’ve read that while harvest time was the busiest time of the season, cotton plants needed a lot of ongoing care throughout the year.

Cotton fields had to be plowed, and they also had to be hoed to control weeds.. It seems like there would be significant work through the growing season.

Yep. Absolutely.

There was, as Colibri states, a lot of heavy and arduous plowing and hoeing work to be done before the picking season started. The narratives of slaves like Solomon Northup and Charles Ball, among others, talk about this in some detail, and northerner Frederick Law Olmstead also talked about hoeing in his accounts of traveling through the slave South, written in the 1850s.

Here’s Charles Ball talking about hoeing cotton:

Here’s Olmsted’s account of cotton hoe gangs:

And in one of Olmsted’s other works:

And cotton was not the only thing that needed tending on cotton plantations. Yes, the slaves were provided with food, but that had to do most of the work related to raising and processing that food themselves. Newer or expanding cotton plantations, especially in the Mississippi delta region, and in Texas, also required extensive and back-breaking tree-clearing operations in order to open new land up for cotton production.

Growing up in Australia, I went to an agricultural high school, and had a few friends whose families owned cotton farms. While cotton production is largely mechanized, in the 1980s these farmers still hired people to walk up and down the rows with hoes, making sure that there were no weeds or thistles that would be picked up by the harvester and mixed in with the cotton. I spent some time hoeing cotton as a summer job, and it is incredibly hard work, even for a fit and well-fed 17- or 18-year-old, as I was at the time.

There’s probably a grain of truth to this somewhere. Human beings being what they are, I imagine it’s very easy for a black servant charged with raising white children to develop some affection for them and for that affection to be genuinely returned. During the Haitian revolution, there are accounts of slaves saving their masters’ lives by warning them that angry crowds were approaching and they needed to GTFO to the mountains while they could. I don’t believe any of those slaves yearned for freedom any less than other Haitians, but they didn’t want to see their masters, mistresses, or their children killed. Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that the social dynamics weren’t fucked up. The institution of slavery here in the United States was brutal.

I have written, and am writing, quite about about the war and the Antebellum period, and the more I learn the less I know. (Rimshot!)

Nonetheless, Odesio, you are correct. Most of the stories that slave masters, however self-serving they were, told had a grain of truth to them. Sometimes only a grain but the element of truth made the lie go down far easier. In addition, they were aided by a complete lack of any kind of systematic or coherent thought about it, which allowed for all sort of hypocrisy as long as the mind could be wonderfully distracted from it. (Also, the fact that it would really, really hurt their income and social power.)

Romans (and most other ancient cultures) didn’t view slavery as a permanent condition of a category of people; they saw it as a temporary condition applied to captives, criminals, debtors, and the like, and their view of what justified it was ‘might makes right’ or ‘don’t commit crimes’ or ‘worship better gods that can protect you’. Post-Enlightenment slavery had to get around the ‘all men are created equal’ concept, so came up with the narrative of races and the idea that some were superior to others. That’s also a big reason why Romans were happy to have educated people as slaves (often as tutors for their own children) while Americans generally forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write.

Romans (and most slaveowners) were primarily scared of slave revolts, where they might die, and even if they won their precious property would lose it’s value by dying in the revolt or being executed as an example to others.

Here’s Winston Churchill talking about the women who cared for him when he was a child:

At this time Mrs. Everest died. As soon as I heard she was seriously ill I travelled up to London to see her. She lived with her sister’s family in North London. She knew she was in danger, but her only anxiety was for me. There had been a heavy shower of rain. My jacket was wet. When she felt it with her hands she was greatly alarmed for fear I should catch cold. The jacket had to be taken off and thoroughly dried before she was calm again. Her only desire was to see my brother Jack, and this unhappily could not be arranged. I set out for London to get a good specialist, and the two doctors consulted together upon the case, which was one of peritonitis. I had to return to Aldershot by the midnight train for a very early morning parade. As soon as it was over, I returned to her bedside. She still knew me, but she gradually became unconscious. Death came very easily {87}to her. She had lived such an innocent and loving life of service to others and held such a simple faith, that she had no fears at all, and did not seem to mind very much. She had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived. I now telegraphed to the clergyman with whom she had served nearly a quarter of a century before. He lived in Cumberland. He had a long memory for faithful service. We met at the graveside. He had become an Archdeacon. He did not bring little Ella with him.

When I think of the fate of poor old women, so many of whom have no one to look after them and nothing to live on at the end of their lives, I am glad to have had a hand in all that structure of pensions and insurance which no other country can rival and which is especially a help to them.

However, there was the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution

"To many, if not most, of the women who are obliged to earn a livelihood as governesses the prospect of an unprovided-for old age is an ever-present nightmare. The Governesses’ Benevolent Institution, which has been in existence for some sixty years, was founded for the purpose of giving relief to ladies in this position.