Voices of the Slave Trade

Slave Overseer Resources

Role Research ¦ Narrative Research
Role Research

Responsibilities:
  • Watch over slaves working on plantations
  • "Bully" slaves into increasing productivity
  • Punish slaves for disobeying
Background:
  • Large landowners that owned over 100 slaves relied on overseers to run plantations. Overseers were under a lot of pressure by owners to maximize profits. They were often seen as cruel. Overseers could be high paid white men or freed black slaves (which some landowners preferred so they could whip the overseer if the slaves didn't produce enough).
What they got in return:
  • Money, wealth
  • Power
  • In some cases, freedom

Narratives

"It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Captain William Helm employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture and when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner." -Austin Steward (slave account)

"Many masters possessing large plantations, and some hundreds of slaves, being desirous to divest themselves as much as possible of the cares of managing the estate, hire white men, at a salary from 1200 to 1400 dollars per annum, to look after the property. These are the best and most humane overseers. But other slave proprietors, in order to save cost of an overseer, but chiefly to exact as much work as possible out of the negroes, make a negroe an overseer, who is he does not cruelly work the slaves is threatened with a flogging, which the master cannot give to a white man. In order to save his own back the slave overseer very often behaves in the most brutal manner to the negroes under him." -Francis Fredric (slave account)



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