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Recollections of Slavery by a Runaway Slave
: The Emancipator, August 23, September 13, September 20, October 11, October 18, 1838.

Summary

The narrator of Recollections (1838) is an unnamed slave who was born near Charleston, South Carolina, around the year 1816. He was owned by a widow who hired him out on neighboring plantations periodically until he was fourteen, when the widow died and he was inherited by her son, Alfred Smith. The narrator stayed with Smith for five years and then was sold to Davey Cohan, "a Jew who lived on Ashley River, about 12 miles from Charleston." After two years with Cohan, the narrator ran away following a severe beating intended to extort information about hog meat that another slave had stolen. He avoided capture for a month before he was captured and sent to the Sugar House in Charleston, an institution for slave correction. In the Sugar House, the narrator almost died, leading Cohan to sell him in June 1837 for $700 to John Fogle. Cohen originally bought him for $1,200, and he attributes the decline in value to the strains put upon the narrator's health by his time in the Sugar House. Fogle whipped the narrator less often than his previous masters—not because Fogle was humane, but simply because he preferred to whip his three female slaves, who were less likely to flee when he whipped them excessively. When Fogle hired the narrator out to "the contractors of the Hamburg and Charleston Rail Road," he ran away, because the railroad slave drivers treated their rented slaves with reckless abandon and wanton cruelty, unconcerned about injuries and fatalities. The narrator made his way to Charleston, where he posed as a slave whose owner allowed him to hire out his time and worked in the harbor, loading cotton onto ships. He eventually escaped on a ship carrying cotton to Boston, with the help of the ship's steward. In Boston, the narrator was warmly received by members of the African American and abolitionist communities, who taught him to read and helped him to secure employment.

Recollections was probably transcribed and introduced by the Reverend Joshua Leavitt, the editor of the Emancipator, a newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The narrative was published serially in five installments of the Emancipator, from August 23 to October 18, 1838. Leavitt makes no apology for the plain style of writing and notes that "[t]here was no poetry in the bruises of the man who fell among thieves between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was no pathetic tale of distress, that lured the good Samaritan from across the way, but the simple sight of a bleeding brother."

The narrator of Recollections provides explicit and horrific descriptions of the brutal tortures used by masters to discipline and punish slaves. In addition to the standard whippings that most masters administered liberally to their slaves, the narrator chronicles a variety of more inventive punishments. Slaves are confined in barrels studded with nails and rolled around the yard, hung upside down over smoking corncobs, and confined in coffin-shaped boxes with a single breathing hole for long periods of time. The narrator suggests that the development of new punishments forms a chief occupation for most slaveholders; they "are all the time contriving punishments."

For those slaveowners who are either incapable of punishing their own slaves or who prefer to have others do so, the Sugar House in Charleston provides a variety of disciplinary services. The narrator states that he has "heard a great deal said about hell, and wicked places, but I don't think there is any worse hell than that sugar house," where the tops of the walls are covered with "broken glass bottles . . . to keep us from climbing over." Inside the Sugar House, slaves are kept in dungeon-like cells and brought daily to the whipping room where "every way you look you can see paddles, and whips, and cowskins, and bluejays, and cat-o'-nine tails." The proprietors of the Sugar House treat whipping as an art form, something to be approached with a variety of tools and techniques, depending on whether the slaveowner desired to maximize pain, to minimize scarring, or to achieve some other disciplinary objective.

Rather than confine itself more strictly to the narrator's story, Recollections highlights the brutal torture methods that many slaves had to endure. The narrator's anonymity and the secondary role that his own life story plays in the text place the work's emphasis squarely on the cruelties of slave discipline.

Zachary Hutchins

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