“land … they cultivate … better than their Master”

JANET SCHAW was a formidable Scotswoman who traveled across the Atlantic in 1774 to deliver three young relatives to their father John Rutherfurd who was a merchant and plantation owner in North Carolina. The journal she kept describing her voyage and experiences in the American South are invaluable resources. In honor of Martin Luther King Day I thought it would be informative to add to our knowledge of the nature and practice of slavery by presenting some of Schaw’s comments on these subjects. She found the largesse of nature in the area to be impressive, but criticized the character and indolent behavior of the white inhabitants who seemed disinclined to take advantage of it. She had praise, albeit grudging, for the slaves who made better use of this natural abundance than their white masters.

The congress has forbid killing Mutton, veal or lamb, so that little variety is to be had from the domestick animals; but indulgent nature makes up for every want, by the vast quantities of wild birds, both of land and water. The wild Turkeys, the wild pigeon, a bird which they call a partridge, but above all the rice-bird, which is the Ortalon in its highest perfection, and from the water the finest ducks that possibly can be met with, and so plenty that when on wing sixteen or eighteen are killed at a shot. The beauty of the Summer-duck makes its death almost a murder. The deer now is large, but not so fat as it will be some time hence; it is however in great plenty, and makes good soup. The rivers are full of fine fish, and luxury itself cannot ask a boon that is not granted. Do not however suppose by this that you meet elegant tables, far from it; this profusion is in general neglected. The gentlemen indeed out of idleness shoot deer, but nothing under a wild turkey is worth a shot. As they are now on the eve of a War, or something else I dare not name, perhaps they save their powder for good reasons. . . .

The Negroes are the only people that seem to pay any attention to the various uses that the wild vegetables may be put to. For example, I have sent you a paper of their vegetable pins* made from the prickly pear, also molds for buttons made from the calabash [a type of squash], which likewise serves to hold their victuals. The allowance for a Negro is a quart of Indian corn pr day (an infant has the same allowance with its parents as soon as born), and a little piece of land which they cultivate much better than their Master. There they rear hogs and poultry, sow calabashes, &c and are better provided for in every thing than the poorer white people with us. They steal whatever they can come at, and even intercept the cows and milk them. They are indeed the constant plague of their tyrants, whose severity or mildness is equally regarded by them in these Matters.

*Clothing was generally pinned together rather than sewn allowing for variety: sleeves were attached to a bodice with straight pins, for example. (See this post for more information.) As safety pins had not been invented, baby diapers were also held together with pins. Metal pins were typically used but these were expensive and also in short supply as American boycotts of British products took effect. Substitutes were sought, hence Shaw’s reference.

The excerpt can be found on page 139 of In the Words of Women.

posted January 18th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Clothes, Farming, Food, North Carolina, Schaw, Janet, Slaves/slavery


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