What was life like for enslaved people on farms in colonial Virginia?

Tobacco card - Best Va, harvesting & packing tobacco, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Tobacco card – Best Va, harvesting & packing tobacco, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

A slave is a person who is owned or enslaved by another person. In colonial times, people from the west coast of Africa were captured and shipped to Virginia and other colonies to work as slaves. In Virginia, these Africans lived and worked on plantations or small farms where tobacco was the cash crop. Enslaved for life, they could be bought or sold as property. Enslaved people in Virginia faced a life of great hardship. Those on smaller farms often lived in a kitchen or other outbuilding or in crude cabins near the farmer’s house. On large tobacco plantations, the field slaves usually lived in cabins grouped together in the slave quarter, which was farther away from the master’s house but under the watchful eye of an overseer. Although large plantations had many enslaved people, most owners usually had fewer than five, including children. Living on a small farm often made it hard for black men and women to find wives and husbands to start families. Sometimes white masters split up families and sent parents or children to different places to live and work which also made it difficult to raise a family. As a general rule, enslaved people worked from sunrise to sunset, usually in the tobacco fields. On large plantations, some learned trades and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers or served as cooks and house servants. At the end of the workday and on Sundays and Christmas, most enslaved people had a few hours to tend to personal needs. They often spent this time doing their own household chores or working in their own gardens. Many masters allowed their slaves to raise chickens, vegetables, and tobacco during their spare time, and sometimes they were allowed to sell these things to earn a small amount of money.

Packing tobacco into hogshead

Packing tobacco into a hogshead, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

When they could, slaves spent their evenings and limited free time visiting friends or family who might live nearby, telling stories, singing, and dancing. Many of these activities combined familiar African traditions with British customs learned in the New World. Some of the slaves’ dances were similar to their African tribal dances, and their songs often told stories about how their masters treated them and the injustices of slavery. Some musical instruments used by enslaved people were similar to those used in Africa. The banjo, made out of a hollow gourd, and the drum were two instruments that slaves made and used to create music. In Virginia, teaching enslaved people to read and write was generally not encouraged. Some learned secretly, but for those living on small farms where the master’s family was not well educated, there was little opportunity. Black Virginians kept some parts of their African religions as well. The life of a slave was hard and often cruel, and their religion was an important way to remind them that their lives had meaning and dignity. Many found ways to resist the hardships of slavery. Prolonging their work, breaking or hiding tools or pretending to be sick, were safe and effective ways to resist the authority of their masters. Some enslaved people ran away to find family in other parts of the country or attempted to escape to the wilderness to begin a new life. Ads printed in the Virginia Gazette describe these runaways, and they were often captured and returned to their masters. Those who could not escape might attempt to destroy their master’s crops or other property or steal food to feed their families. Such actions were usually met with harsh punishment or death.