Master-Slave Relations

Slave women were forced to comply with sexual advances by their masters on a very regular basis. Consequences of resistance often came in the form of physical beatings; thus, an enormous number of slaves became concubines for these men. Most often the masters were already bound in matrimony, which caused tension and hatred between the slave and the mistress of the house. Many "mulatto" or racially mixed children also resulted from these relations. Because the "status of the child" followed that of his or her mother, the child of a white man would not be freed based upon patriarchal genealogy. These children also became a sore reminder for the mistress of her husbands infidelity.

The following passages sketch the nature of the master-slave relations, and their consequences:

"Maria was a thirteen-year-old house servant. One day, receiving no response to her call, the mistress began searching the house for her. Finally, she opened the parlor door, and there was the child with her master. The master ran out of the room, mounted his horse and rode off to escape, 'though well he knew that [his wife's] full fury would fall upon the young head of his victim.' The mistress beat the child and locked her up in a smokehouse. For two weeks the girl was constantly whipped. Some of the elderly servants attempted to plead with the mistress on Maria's behalf, and even hinted that 'it was mass'r that was to blame.' The mistress's reply was typical: 'She'll know better in the future. After I've done with her, she'll never do the like again, through ignorance'" (Stanley Felstein, Once a Slave: The Slaves' View of Slavery, p.132).

Here, the mistress was able to take out her aggressions on the girl rather than the guilty master. I suppose we could empathize with the frustration and betrayal these wives felt, but the outlet of their aggressions often became the slave girl. Women in the south were quite powerless. Because the option of divorce was not readily available, the mistresses often times punished the slave women for their husbands' wrong-doings.


The slave husband also had little control over master-female slave sexual relations. Although a conjugal bond existed, the slave wife could still be used to fulfill the master's desires. We can obviously relate with the helpless hostility slave husbands must have felt in such a situation. Sometimes the relations would become so striking that the husband would release his anger on the master in the form of violence.

"I was born June 15th, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis Newman, about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was a slave of Dr. Josiah McPherson, but hired to the Mr. Newman to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remembered which occurred while my mother continued on Mr. Newman's farm, was the appearance one day of my father with his head bloody and his back lacerated. He was beside himself with mingled rage and suffering. The explanation I picked up from the conversation of others only partially explained the matter to my mind; but as I grew older I understood it all. It seemed the overseer had sent my mother away from the other field hands to a retired place, and after trying persuasion in vain, had resorted to force to accomplish a brutal purpose. Her screams aroused my father at his distant work, and running up, he found his wife struggling with the man. Furious at the sight, he sprung upon him like a tiger. In a moment the overseer was down, and, mastered by rage, my father would have killed him but for the entreaties of my mother, and the overseer's own promise that nothing should ever be said of the matter. The promise was kept- - like most promises of the cowardly and debased- - as long as the danger lasted" (Josiah Henson, Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson )


Often, children were conceived from master-slave relations. Although the masters would not admit their paternity, the fair skinned children were and obvious clue for the inquiring public. Sometimes paternal manumission – where a master frees his children out of fatherly affections – would occur.

"Louisa Picquet had even less choice. Interviewed after she was set free, she recalled: Mr. Williams told me what he bought me for soon as we started for New Orleans. He said if I behave myself he'd treat me well; but, if not, he'd whip me almost to death. He was over forty; I guess pretty near fifty.

Q. Had you any children while in New Orleans?

A. Yes; I had four

Q. Who was their father?

A. Mr. Williams.

Q. Was it known that he was living with you?

A. Everybody knew I was housekeeper, but he never let on that he was the father of my children. I did all the work in his house – nobody there but me and the children. When he had company, gentlemen folks, he took them to the hotel.

When Mr. Williams told me what he bought me for I thought, now I shall be committin' adultery, and there's no chance for me, and I'll have to die and be lost. I had this trouble with my soul the whole time. I begin to pray that he might die, so that I might get religion. It was some time before he got sick, He said that if I would promise him that I would go to New York, he would leave me and the children free. In about a month, he died. I didn't cry or nothin', for I was glad he was dead. I was left free, and that made me so glad I could hardly believe it myself" (Dorothy Sterling, ed., We are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, p. 24)


Think about it:Rape and other forms of sexual exploitation are still a part of today’s society, but hidden much better than those master-slave relations of antebellum America. Do you think these women became emotionally frozen because of these relationships? Or, do you think the advancements served to ignite more resistance? These relationships often persisted for years; they were not isolated events. What are some parallels in today’s society?


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